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Communication Technology and Interpersonal Relationships

Summary and Keywords

Owing to advances in communication technology, the human race now possesses more opportunities to interact with interpersonal partners than ever before. Particularly in recent decades, such technology has become increasingly faster, mobile, and powerful. Although tablets, smartphones, and social media are relatively new, the impetus behind their development is old, as throughout history humans have developed mechanisms for communicating ideas that transcend inherent temporal and spatial limitations of face-to-face communication. In the ancient past, humans developed writing and the alphabet to preserve knowledge across time, with the later development of the printing press further facilitating the mass distribution of written ideas. Later, the telegraph was arguably the first technology to separate communication from transportation, and the telephone enabled people at a distance to hear the warmth and intimacy of the human voice. The development of the Internet consolidates and advances these technologies by facilitating pictorial and video interactions, and the mobility provided by cell phones and other technologies makes the potential for communication with interpersonal partners nearly ubiquitous. As such, these technologies reconfigure perception of time and space, creating the sense of a smaller world where people can begin and manage interpersonal relationships across geographic distance.

These developments in communication technology influence interpersonal processes in at least four ways. First, they introduce media choice as a salient question in interpersonal relationships. As recently as the late 20th century, people faced relatively few options for communicating with interpersonal partners; by the early years of the 21st century, people possessed a sometimes bewildering array of channel choices. Moreover, these choices matter because of the relational messages they send; for example, choosing to end a romantic relationship over the phone may communicate more sensitivity than choosing to do so via text messaging, or publicly on social media. Second, communication technology affords new opportunities to begin relationships and, through structural features of the media, shape how those meetings occur. The online dating industry generates over $1 billion in profit, with most Americans agreeing it is a good way to meet romantic partners; friendships also form online around shared interests and through connections on social media. Third, communication technology alters the practices people use to maintain interpersonal relationships. In addition to placing traditional forms of relational maintenance in more public spaces, social media facilitates passive browsing as a strategy for keeping up with interpersonal partners. Moreover, mobile technology affords partners increased geographic and temporal flexibility when keeping contact with partners, yet simultaneously, it may produce feelings of over-connectedness that hamper the desire for personal autonomy. Fourth, communication technology makes interpersonal networks more visibly manifest and preserves their continuity over time. This may provide an ongoing convoy of social support and, through increased efficiency, augment the size and diversity of social networks.

Keywords: interpersonal communication, technology, impression formation, relational maintenance, social networks, mobility, social media, computer-mediated communication, long-distance relationships

Introduction

Since at least the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, and especially since the rapid adoption of social media and smartphones during the 2000s, communication technology has enjoyed widespread use, celebration, and criticism. In just 20 years, Internet access has changed from a novelty to a near necessity for many users, with smartphones experiencing an even faster rate of adoption (Smith, 2013). These technologies provide opportunities to begin new interpersonal relationships (Raacke & Bonds-Raacke, 2008), maintain contact with those geographically far and near (McEwan, 2013; Vitak, 2014), and restart old relationships that have lapsed over time (Ramirez, Sumner, & Spinda, 2015). Although frequency of social media use appears to be associated with beneficial outcomes such as increased relational closeness (Ledbetter, Mazer, DeGroot, Meyer, Mao, & Swafford, 2011) and social capital (Ellison, Vitak, Gray, & Lampe, 2014), some have expressed concern that communication technology may distract from valuable face-to-face contact (Turkle, 2011). Even if communication technology does not occur at the expense of other forms of relating, such use may lead to distressing relational events such as conflict and romantic infidelity (Clayton, Nagurney, & Smith, 2013). One study gained notoriety not only because it demonstrated that negative emotions can spread through social media in a manner akin to disease, but also by generating controversy about the extent to which social media users should serve as objects of research study without their direct knowledge (Kramer, Guillory, & Hancock, 2014). Clearly, then, the use of communication technology in interpersonal relationships represents a topic of considerable public interest and, to some extent, concern.

Today, the term communication technology conjures mental images of tablets, cell phones, gaming systems, and other modern devices, as well as apps and social media platforms that facilitate communication. Indeed, these recent advances, and especially their high level of mobility and availability, have drawn public attention to the role of communication technology in interpersonal relationships. Yet for those who may read this version of this article in the future, the foregoing list of technologies may appear quaint in light of new technologies unanticipated at the time of this writing. This illustrates an inherent danger in the study of interpersonal uses of communication technology: The rapid advance of communication technology lures scholars to study currently popular devices and software, but unless connected to broader theoretical and practical concerns, the passage of just a few years may render such research passé (Baym, 2009). One way of avoiding this pitfall is to consider enduring social factors pertaining to communication technology—those interpersonal purposes and processes that transcend the current moment (Sawhney, 2007). With this in mind, this article first discusses the history of technology and interpersonal relating before, in subsequent sections, turning attention to intersections of communication technology with four specific interpersonal processes: (a) choosing media, (b) initiating relationships, (c) maintaining relationships, and (d) reconfiguring social networks.

A Brief History of Communication Technology and Interpersonal Relationships

Although tablets, cell phones, and even computers are (relatively) new, the use of communication technology, broadly construed, is not. At its heart, the desire to communicate across time and distance serves as the primary motivation to develop communication technology; said differently, without communication technology, the transmission of ideas from one generation (or location) to the next relies on the spoken word and human memory. Such oral communication served as the means of perpetuating ideas in early human history. McLuhan and Logan (1977) contended that the development of writing systems, and specifically the alphabet, enabled not only the transmission of more specific ideas across space and time but also consideration of more abstract concepts and ideas such as mathematics. Written correspondence flourished during the Roman Empire, which maintained an extensive postal system throughout the realm (Ramsay, 1925). During this epoch, evidence in the New Testament epistles of the Christian Bible indicates at least some reflection on the limitations of the written word versus face-to-face communication, an idea that would be echoed in later scientific scholarship on interpersonal mediated communication: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (I John 1:12, ESV).

With the exception of techniques such as line-of-sight beacons stationed on hilltops (Ackerman, 1976), for most of human history communication has required transportation. For a message to travel from one place to another, someone had to physically take it there. The invention of the telegraph severed this connection between transportation and communication (Carey, 2003), and eventually, the invention of the telephone enabled transmission of the human voice across distance. In World War II, the American government faced the problem of delivering large quantities of postal mail between troops abroad and loved ones back home. Although such messages boosted morale, delivering mail around the world was costly, especially given wartime scarcity of gasoline. To solve this problem, a technology was developed that reduced postal messages to a much smaller and lighter piece of film that, upon delivery, could be enlarged back to full size. Known as V-mail, these messages maintained interpersonal relationships during the wartime years (Litoff & Smith, 1990); V-mail also foreshadowed more recent efforts to facilitate contact between deployed military and loved ones on the home front (Merolla, 2010).

Following on the heels of World War II, Cold War concerns led to the development of ARPANET, which was designed to provide command, control, and communication that could withstand a Soviet nuclear attack (Ryan, 2010). This network, which eventually evolved into our modern-day Internet, featured social interaction as a prominent (if unintended) form of use; for example, some of the earliest discussion groups on the Internet’s USENET were devoted to Star Trek and the Grateful Dead (Baym, 2007). After USENET, e-mail developed as an unplanned feature that users rapidly adopted (Ryan, 2010). Although the early architects of the Internet conceived it as a military and scientific enterprise, in a matter of decades it evolved into a fundamentally social and interpersonal (as well as commercial) space.

Ironically, although the Internet was social from the start, it took time for both the public and academic researchers to recognize it as such. This skepticism likely arose from a confluence of interdependent sources. In the 1970s—the nascent years of the computer revolution that would alter society in the subsequent decades—the formal scientific study of interpersonal communication was also in a state of relative infancy. In these early days, scholars conceptualized interpersonal communication as inherently face-to-face, a quality that differentiated interpersonal communication from mass media communication. As one early and dominant interpersonal communication text put it, “With ‘interpersonal communication’ we are concerned with the face-to-face interactions between people who are consistently aware of each other” (Patton & Giffin, 1974, p. 12, emphasis added). Thus, although humans had been maintaining friend, family, and romantic relationships across distances for centuries (and were doing so regularly in the 1970s; Mok, Wellman, & Basu, 2007), early interpersonal scholarship bracketed such mediated communication as beyond the proper scope of study. Likewise, scholars interested in mediated communication conceptualized computer-based interaction as lacking social presence (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976), not sufficiently “rich” for ambiguous communication (Daft & Lengel, 1986), and prone to generating cruel, uninhibited comments (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Although Cathcart and Gumpert’s (1983) typology of interpersonal uses of mediated communication stands as a notable exception, for the most part interpersonal communication scholarship took a dim view of interpersonal relationships via computer-mediated means.

To some extent, these scholarly observations mirrored the public’s perception of online relating. Paralleling the growth of the Internet in the 1970s and 1980s, computer aficionados developed local computer networks known as bulletin board systems (or BBSs). To use a BBS, a user’s computer connected to the host computer via a phone line and a modem. Long-distance calling costs meant that most BBSs were local affairs, facilitating communication, game playing, and software-sharing among a set of local computer enthusiasts (cf. Garramone, Harris, & Anderson, 1986). To some extent, the desire for anonymous communication and escape from the real world drove people to use BBSs (Myers, 1987), and one might argue that such users possessed a deficit in face-to-face social skills (cf. Caplan, 2005). Combined with the cumbersome and user-unfriendly nature of hardware and software at the time, it is perhaps unsurprising that some people viewed BBS users as “nerds” and “geeks”—a more mainstream term today, but quite pejorative at the time (Cohen, 2014).

Public and scholarly perception of the Internet changed rapidly during the 1990s. In 1993, the Mosaic browser launched publicly, and thus began the World Wide Web (Ryan, 2010). To users today, “www” is synonymous with the Internet, but this was not originally the case. Rather, the web was one of several Internet platforms, but through its graphical and clickable network of pages, it quickly became the most dominant form of Internet use. In September 1993, the popular America Online network opened the Internet to its users, radically changing social interaction on the Internet; from the perspective of longtime Internet users, it represented the entrance of the uncouth masses to the detriment of the preexisting Internet culture. Some still remember that date as the start of the “Eternal September”—a fundamental shift of the Internet toward the mainstream that continues to the present day (Nowviskie, 2010).

Perhaps the next meaningful change in the social history of the Internet occurred in the early 2000s, with the development of social media platforms. After abortive early attempts such as Friendster, Xanga, and Myspace, Facebook became the first social media site with long-term staying power (boyd & Ellison, 2008). The key to Facebook’s early success was fundamentally sourced in social factors; unlike other sites with a come-one-come-all approach to registration, when Facebook launched in 2004, it limited registration to those with e-mail addresses attached to specific universities. Building the initial user base on preexisting social networks facilitated trust and social cohesion, giving the site a significant advantage over competitors (Dwyer, Hiltz, & Passerini, 2007). In 2006, the site opened to everyone (boyd & Ellison, 2008), and as of September 2015, the site boasted over a billion users per day (Facebook, 2016). Several other social media platforms also have experienced significant success, including Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest; although each site possesses somewhat different features, uses, and limitations, all emphasize the facilitation of social communication as a fundamental purpose of the site.

Social media predated the release of smartphones in 2007, but smartphones have only augmented the frequency and scope of social media use. Smartphones function as small computers, often with built-in cameras for photo and video recording. When combined with social media, smartphones enable users to share visual and auditory information with a global audience anywhere they have a cellular data connection. The access to e-mail and availability of text messaging further liberates smartphone users from the constraints of distance, allowing them to contact social network members when they are on the go. On one hand, this permits coordination of social activities in a more detailed and fluid manner than previously (Ling & Yttri, 2002); on the other hand, constant access to social network members can lead to feelings of overdependence and entrapment regarding relational partners (Hall & Baym, 2012), and the ready availability of such communication devices can disrupt activities such as classroom learning (Kuznekoff & Titsworth, 2013) and driving (Kingery, Narad, Garner, Atnonini, Tamm, & Epstein, 2015).

Taken overall, then, the history of interpersonal media use suggests that (a) humans desire to find more precise and convenient mechanisms for transmitting ideas across space and time; (b) the properties of a medium shape the messages communicated through it; and (c) despite the limitations of a medium, humans find ways to conduct interpersonal relationships across them; although (d) both social and technical characteristics of the medium may alter these interpersonal processes relative to face-to-face relating. With this history in mind, the remainder of this article focuses on four interpersonal processes that intersect with communication technology: (a) processes of media choice, (b) processes of relationship initiation and impression formation, (c) processes of relationship maintenance, and (d) processes of social network reconfiguration. These processes exist in a symbiotic relationship with technology in that the affordances of a specific technology may alter their nature meaningfully (and social purposes may, in turn, shape development of technology); however, the processes simultaneously transcend any specific technology, representing enduring concerns that are unlikely to disappear as technology advances. Compared to organizing the article around specific technologies, it is hoped that centering the article on interpersonal processes will mitigate against the tendency of some communication technology scholarship to quickly lose relevance as technology advances (Baym, 2009; Sawhney, 2007). Owing to the vast scholarly literature and popular discourse on communication technology, this article does not aim to be comprehensive, but rather to offer a representative account of central strands of thought on enduring interpersonal processes and the extent to which communication technology refocuses and reshapes them.

Processes of Media Choice

Arguably, the chief motivation to create communication technology is to transcend the limitations of space and time (cf. Carey, 2003). At one time in humanity’s past, the question of media choice was moot, as oral transmission of information was the only option available. In contrast, today’s communicators possess a menu of media from which to choose. Accordingly, the factors influencing selection of a medium for a message represents an enduring theoretical and practical concern (Ledbetter, 2014b). Toward this end, several theories of media choice seek to explain this process; viewed overall, they emphasize four factors that contribute to media choice: (a) the properties (or affordances) of the medium itself, (b) the nature of the message, (c) the surrounding social environment, and (d) individual attitudes toward communication media.

The Properties of the Medium and the Nature of the Message

From the start, the ability to transmit a message across space and/or time has come at the expense of nonverbal cues. When communicating face-to-face, communicators cannot escape the presence of facial expressions, body posture, eye contact, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues; in contrast, technical limitations frequently strip these characteristics from mediated communication. Although some newer media forms return nonverbal cues to the message (e.g., tone of voice in a phone call; visual cues in a video chat), no medium yet developed perfectly replicates the experience of face-to-face communication. For decades, scholars have grappled with how the restricted amount of nonverbal cues influences mediated communication relative to that which occurs face-to-face.

In the 1970s and 1980s, before computers entered mainstream popular use, dominant theoretical models emphasized the absence of nonverbal cues as a detrimental aspect of computer-mediated communication. For example, social presence theory (Short et al., 1976) contended that cue-limited media do not effectively transmit social presence. Media richness theory further elaborates the nature of cue-limited media, defining rich media as those that feature (a) rapid/instantaneous response time, (b) the presence of nonverbal cues, (c) the ability to customize the message in a personalized way, and (d) diversity in linguistic styles (Daft & Lengel, 1986). Communication via a rich medium quickly reduces ambiguity and equivocality, whereas communication through a lean medium makes such clarification difficult. Accordingly, then, effective media choice rests in matching the equivocality of the situation to a media rich enough to handle that equivocality (Daft, Lengel, & Trevino, 1987). In interpersonal contexts, an ongoing conflict may represent an equivocal situation for which a lean medium, such as text messaging, may not permit sufficiently rapid clarification. In contrast, rescheduling a lunch meeting is (likely) not an equivocal situation, and thus partners may find a lean medium suitable for that purpose. Although media richness theory has enjoyed much popularity, some have argued that empirical evidence provides weak support for the theory (see Walther, 2011, for further discussion).

More recent research has recognized that the lack of nonverbal cues is not the only medium property that may influence media choice. For example, Fussell and Setlock (2014) identified eight affordances that delineate the nature of a given medium: (a) audibility, (b) visibility, (c) co-presence, (d) cotemporality, (e) simultaneity, (f) sequentiality, (g) reviewability, and (h) revisability. In comparison, McEwan and Fox (2015) identified a typology and measure of four affordances perceived by users: (a) control, (b) immediacy, (c) public visibility, and (d) synchronicity. Although research has devoted comparatively little attention to most of these affordances, compared to nonverbal cue presence, it stands to reason that they may also influence interpersonal media choice.

Social Environment

Beyond the structural properties and affordances of media, the social environment may also influence likelihood of selecting a medium. The social meanings ascribed to technology change over time (Hughes, 1996), and in some cases, organizational norms prescribe patterns of media use, either explicitly or implicitly (Haythornthwaite, 2002). Accordingly, the social influence model of media choice (Fulk, 1993) adopts a social constructionist perspective on communication technology, positing that the attitudes of other people toward the technology influence media choice. This model has been applied to understand media use in interpersonal (Campbell & Russo, 2003) and instructional (Finn & Ledbetter, 2013) contexts.

If media choice is a product of both technological and social factors, it begs the question of how these function together to influence media choice. The dual-capacity model of media choice (Sitkin, Sutcliffe, & Barrios-Choplin, 1992) addresses both of these processes, contending that, although the technical properties of a medium are fixed traits (i.e., the channel capacity), the social meaning attached to use of a technology (i.e., the symbol-carrying capacity) changes over time. For example, in the mid-1980s, sending an e-mail message may have conveyed an image of the sender as young, avant-garde, and technically proficient; today, some young adults may perceive e-mail as a passé technology, used mostly by the old and established. Likewise, Facebook’s image as a site for young adults changed considerably when Facebook opened registration to those without a university e-mail address (boyd & Ellison, 2008).

Individual Attitudes

The foregoing perspectives contend that interpersonal media choice is a function of medium properties and/or the social environment. An alternative but complementary approach conceptualizes media choice as influenced, at least to some extent, by traits of the individual user. Some research demonstrates that personality traits are associated with media use (Ryan & Xenos, 2011); likewise, psychological attachment patterns learned in childhood may also shape patterns of media choice (Oldmeadow, Quinn, & Kowert, 2013).

Beyond enduring personality traits, attitudes and beliefs about a communication medium may also influence tendency to use (or avoid) that medium (Eden & Veksler, 2016). One typology identifies five such attitudes toward use of a communication medium: (a) the extent to which the medium produces feelings of apprehension, (b) the extent to which the medium fosters miscommunication, (c) the extent to which the medium is useful for self-disclosure, (d) the extent to which the medium is useful for social connection, and (e) the extent to which use of the medium is convenient and enjoyable (Ledbetter, 2009). These attitudes are associated with use of several communication media, including instant messaging (Ledbetter, 2009), Facebook (Ledbetter et al., 2011), and the Xbox LIVE online gaming service (Ledbetter & Kuznekoff, 2012). Attitude toward a medium may even play a role in relational attraction, as romantic partners demonstrate similarity in each other’s attitude toward online social connection (Ledbetter, 2014a). Relatedly, although increased communication is generally associated with increased intimacy and liking (Berger & Calabrese, 1975), such benefits may not accrue if the user does not enjoy using the communication medium (Ledbetter, Taylor, & Mazer, 2016).

Such attitudes toward technology appear to be associated with communication patterns in the family of origin (Ledbetter, 2010c), and attitudes toward communication media may differ depending on the properties of the medium (cf. McEwan & Fox, 2015). Thus, rather than separate explanations, media choice likely arises from a confluence of medium, social, and individual factors. It is one thing to explain choice of a medium; it is another to explain the interpersonal goals sought by media use. Subsequent sections explore this question, first turning attention to processes by which people use communication technology to begin new relationships.

Processes of Relationship Initiation and Impression Formation

Throughout the history of mediated communication, humans have used it to begin relationships with those outside their immediate geographic location. With postal mail, people sought pen pals (Shulman, Seiffge-Krenke, & Dimitrovsky, 1994); with the phone, they maintained at least ritual contact with loved ones at a distance (Fischer, 1992). One particularly intriguing use of the phone for this purpose was the “phone phreaks” of the mid-20th century, who devised a way to use the landline phone system to engage in free, unmonitored communication among fellow blind and socially-ostracized people (Ryan, 2010). The advent of computer-mediated channels greatly augmented the number of opportunities to connect with new people both geographically close and far away (Donath, 2007).

When face-to-face, processes of impression formation (i.e., forming a mental image of someone newly encountered) occur through synchronous communication and observation of nonverbal cues, but these are often absent when communicating online. Toward understanding how impression formation may differ in such cue-limited contexts, a burgeoning body of scholarship has considered processes of impression formation via communication technology. Although early scholarship suggested that users would ignore missing nonverbal cues to social status (thus inhibiting relationship development; cf. Sproull & Kiesler, 1986), subsequent research discovered that online channels could facilitate relational development when interpersonal partners had sufficient time to interact (Walther, 1992). Specifically, interpersonal partners may require four times as much time to get to know each other as well as they would when face-to-face (Ledbetter & Keating, 2015; Walther, 1995). Online communication, then, may not be temporally efficient for impression formation, but it is temporally efficient regarding opportunities for interaction: The asynchronous nature of the channel means that partners can communicate when it is convenient for them, which may both heighten enjoyment of the interaction (Walther, 1996) and reduce the sense that the partner is interfering with individual goals (Ellis & Ledbetter, 2015).

However, just as asynchronous communication facilitates control over self-presentation and face management (O’Sullivan, 2000; Walther, 1996), it also allows users to distort their self-presentation such that it does not match who they are face-to-face. The Internet’s capacity to facilitate deception was recognized in its early days. Particularly prominent was the story of “Joan,” a man who pretended to be a woman online and tricked people into social and sexual interaction (Van Gelder, 1985). This story foreshadowed the 2012–2013 case of Manti Te’o, a University of Notre Dame football player who claimed he was fooled into thinking his online girlfriend had died; in truth, not only the death but the identity of the girlfriend appeared to be an elaborate deception (Eder, 2013). Likewise, in 2015, Australian supermodel Essena O’Neill deleted thousands of her social media photos that she claimed had been carefully staged so as to appear natural and realistic. She then changed her account name to “Social Media Is Not Real Life,” seeking to call attention to the ability of social media to distort self-presentation (Hunt, 2015).

Beyond celebrities and anecdotal accounts, those who seek online romantic relationships may possess particular concern about the accuracy of the self-presentation of potential partners. Because users of online dating sites often expect some discrepancy between online self-presentation and offline reality, they also consider a person’s dating profile as “a promise made to an imagined audience that future face-to-face interaction will take place with someone who does not differ fundamentally from the person represented by the profile” (Ellison, Hancock, & Toma, 2012, p. 56). In addition to fear of a potential partner’s misrepresentation, concerns about personal security and about a person’s dating profile being discovered by other social network members may motivate online daters to reduce uncertainty about those met through an online dating service (Gibbs, Ellison, & Lai, 2011).

When meeting people online, then, communicators may exert greater effort to appear trustworthy and, in turn, judge whether the self-presentations of other people are accurate. To some extent, the design of the technology shapes a user’s ability to gauge another’s trustworthiness (Donath, 2007). By definition, social media involves connections among a network of communicators and opportunities to contribute to a person’s profile through comments, pictures, and other features (Ellison & boyd, 2013), and thus trust in another’s identity performance emerges when others confirm or reinforce that performance (Papacharissi, 2009). Other scholars have referred to this as the warranting value of information—namely, that profile viewers place greater confidence in information that comes from another person than that presented by a profile owner, because they perceive information from others to be less manipulable (Walther, Van Der Heide, Kim, Westerman, & Tong, 2008). For example, in one study of perception of Facebook profiles, claims of physical attractiveness generated greater confidence when those comments came from wall posts by friends versus claims of the profile owner (Walther, Van Der Heide, Hamel, & Shulman, 2009). The presence of such high-warrant information serves to differentiate social media from other technological platforms, such as e-mail and text messaging, which generally only contain information generated by the message sender. Indeed, on social media, even the number of friends a person has (Tong et al., 2008) and the characteristics of those friends (Walther et al., 2008) may influence processes of impression formation (Papacharissi, 2009).

Whether social information accrues from statements of the target or the target’s friends, the process of relationship initiation bears similarity to that experienced face-to-face: Increased social information leads to the formation of impressions, which, in turn, produces an interpersonal relationship (Walther, 1996). One difference, however, is the rate at which relationship development occurs (Walther, 1992). When face-to-face, the presence of nonverbal cues affords communicators with a wealth of information about each other. The absence of these cues does not prevent relationship development from occurring but, rather, necessitates that communicators adapt to the cue-limited environment by substituting nonverbal cues for verbal language (Walther, Loh, & Granka, 2005). Thus, given sufficient time, cue-limited online interaction may generate relational development that is similar to what is accomplished face-to-face (albeit, there, in a shorter amount of time).

Even when the initial point of contact between interpersonal partners happens face-to-face, communication technology may serve as an important vehicle of relationship development. After meeting for the first time, partners may employ online searching to discover additional information about their new acquaintance (Ramirez, Walther, Burgoon, & Sunnafrank, 2002). During the early stages of a romantic relationship, romantic partners may use Facebook to reduce uncertainty about each other (Fox, Warber, & Makstaller, 2013); more generally, interpersonal partners of any kind may engage in social media surveillance—or, as it is known more popularly (and sometimes pejoratively), creeping (Raynes-Goldie, 2010), to keep up to date with the members of their social networks (McEwan, 2013).

Processes of Relational Escalation and Maintenance

Although people use communication technology to build new relationships, it is perhaps more common to employ communication technology to escalate and maintain relationships begun face-to-face (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007). The broader field of interpersonal communication has long recognized relational maintenance as a domain of inquiry. Broadly construed, relational maintenance behaviors are those that function “to keep a relationship in existence, to keep relationships at a specific state or condition, to keep a relationship in satisfactory condition, or to keep a relationship in repair” (Dindia & Canary, 1993, p. 163). Early research generated a number of typologies of maintenance behavior (e.g., Ayres, 1983; Bell, Daly, & Gonzalez, 1987), with Stafford and Canary’s (1991; Canary & Stafford, 1992) relational maintenance strategy typology gaining the most widespread use and acceptance to date. The five central maintenance behaviors identified in this line of research are (a) positivity, or behaviors intended to communicate friendliness and warmth; (b) openness, or behaviors that self-disclose information and impressions between relational partners; (c) assurances, or behaviors that express commitment to the relationship and its future; (d) shared networks, or spending time focused on common friends and affiliations; and (e) shared tasks, or helping each other achieve practical goals.

Stafford and Canary (1991) developed their typology by investigating relational maintenance behaviors between romantic partners. Consistent with that context and with dominant contemporary assumptions about the inferiority of mediated interpersonal communication (Patton & Giffin, 1974), they assumed that such maintenance occurs through face-to-face communication. Since then, scholarly work has extended relational maintenance beyond face-to-face in four stages: (a) conceptualizing mediated maintenance as a separate maintenance category, (b) documenting evidence of maintenance behavior across mediated communication, (c) theorizing how maintenance functions across multiple media, and (d) theorizing how a medium’s affordances shape maintenance behavior. This article considers each phase in turn, although it is worth emphasizing that these phases overlapped historically, with the final two phases enjoying active scholarly research today.

Phases One and Two: Conceptualizing Mediated Maintenance

The first phase began soon after the development of the Stafford and Canary typology and proceeded by considering mediated maintenance as a distinct category alongside positivity, openness, and so forth (e.g., “cards, letters, and calls” in Canary, Stafford, Hause, & Wallace, 1993; see also Maguire, 1997). Although this approach provided at least some acknowledgment that relationships occur via mediated means, it also exhibited a degree of conceptual confusion by placing such medium-oriented categories alongside content-oriented categories. This approach obfuscates the hierarchically nested nature of content within medium and thus, arguably, prevents investigation of what content occurs in mediated messages (Ledbetter, 2010b).

The second phase sought to redress this concern by documenting evidence of relational maintenance behavior occurring through mediated channels. For example, one such study examined the relational maintenance functions of holiday greeting cards (Dindia, Timmerman, Langan, Sahlstein, & Quandt, 2004). As the capability and user base of the Internet grew rapidly alongside this second phase, it is perhaps unsurprising that scholars turned attention to maintenance occurring online. Technologies of interest during this phase included e-mail (Stafford, Kline, & Dimmick, 1999), instant messaging (Hu, Wood, Smith, & Westbrook, 2004), and online support groups (Dunham, Hurshman, Litwin, Gusella, Ellsworth, & Dodd, 1998; Mickelson, 1997). Although not all of these studies proceeded directly from the Stafford and Canary (1991) tradition, they demonstrated a concerted effort to recognize and describe the nature of online interactions that foster ongoing relationships. To some extent, a widely-publicized study documenting negative psychosocial outcomes arising from Internet use (Kraut, Patterson, Lundmark, Kiesler, Mukhopadhyay, & Scherlis, 1998) drove the desire to legitimize online relating (later evidence contradicted the initial study; Kraut, Kiesler, Boneva, Cummings, Helgeson, & Crawford, 2002).

Phase Three: Multimodality

The hallmark of the second phase was the examination of a single medium in isolation from other media. Concomitantly, a limitation of this approach is that it cannot address how interpersonal partners conduct their relationships by weaving together multiple communication media into a coherent pattern of relating. Walther and Parks (2002) noted this limitation in their overview of interpersonal computer-mediated communication research, arguing that “It is increasingly common for people to use the Internet as one among many channels for communication with work partners, social partners, and family members. How this technology affects such relationships is not well understood” (p. 556). Contemporaneous with that critique, and pertinent to answering it, media multiplexity theory arose from the somewhat serendipitous discovery that the number of media used within a relationship is positively associated with the strength of that interpersonal relationship (Haythornthwaite, 2000). Initial research using the theory examined educational and organizational networks (Haythornthwaite, 2002), finding that weaker ties used one or a few media to communicate, whereas certain media were reserved for stronger ties. Allocating more media to a strong tie may enhance ability to manage the tie’s high level of interdependence (Ledbetter, 2010b) and also build a degree of redundancy into the relationship. Thus, in a case where access to a medium is removed (e.g., a friend loses their phone or quits a social media site), strong ties possess alternate means of communication and thus the strong tie relationship is not strongly influenced; in contrast, such loss of a medium may sever the only connection between weak ties (Haythornthwaite, 2005).

One of the first moves in the third phase of online relational maintenance research was to validate the basic claim of media multiplexity theory (i.e., that the number of media used is positively associated with tie strength) outside of organizational contexts. This claim has received empirical support across several populations, including users of a music-based social media site (Baym & Ledbetter, 2009), Facebook users (Ledbetter et al., 2011), Xbox LIVE online gamers (Ledbetter & Kuznekoff, 2012), and citizens engaged in online political participation (Hsieh & Li, 2014). Subsequent research within this phase has sought to qualify this claim, noting that, at times, interpersonal partners may experience difficulty when shifting communication from one medium to another; this may dampen the extent to which media multiplexity is associated with tie strength (Caughlin & Sharabi, 2013). This positive association may further depend on the extent to which partners enjoy the medium itself, with some evidence suggesting that interpersonal closeness may not accrue absent such enjoyment (Ledbetter & Mazer, 2014; Ledbetter, Taylor, & Mazer, 2016). A weakness of this line of scholarship is the dearth of experimental and longitudinal research. Although it has been argued that media multiplexity and tie strength mutually cause each other across time (Ledbetter, 2015), this observation awaits empirical validation.

Not all work within the third phase has proceeded from media multiplexity theory, but such work pursues a similar goal of understanding the multimodal nature of relational maintenance. Ramirez and his colleagues have developed a productive line of work on modality switching (Ramirez & Zhang, 2007), which has recently documented how social media functions to reconnect friends who have lost contact (Ramirez et al., 2015). Likewise, Rabby (2007) examined the extent to which meeting online versus offline (and possible subsequent shifts to another medium) predict relational maintenance, with relational commitment serving to moderate those associations. Critically, the third phase also provided initial evidence that the basic content-oriented categories of the Stafford and Canary (1991) typology extend to online environments (Ledbetter, 2010a), and it demonstrated that content-oriented maintenance may exert different effects on relational quality than does the medium used to enact it (e.g., medium is associated with strength of mutual influence, whereas content is associated with quality of that influence; Ledbetter, 2010b).

Phase Four: Affordances and Maintenance

The third phase sought to establish the extent to which maintenance behaviors offline extend to online environments and, furthermore, how online and offline maintenance function jointly within interpersonal relationships. The fourth phase built from the third phase by considering how online environments may give rise to maintenance behaviors that differ qualitatively from offline maintenance. This research has focused attention on the affordances of the communication medium and how such affordances shape the nature of online relational maintenance. Both the third phase and fourth phase are still under active research, and together they represent the two central pillars of online relational maintenance scholarship at the time of this writing.

Given that media possess different affordances (see above; e.g., Fussell & Setlock, 2014; McEwan & Fox, 2015), it stands to reason that a medium’s affordances may shape the nature of relational maintenance conducted across that medium, perhaps by transforming the costs and benefits associated with specific maintenance behaviors (Tong & Walther, 2010). Perhaps more enticing still, the affordances of online media may give rise to forms of relational maintenance that have no clear analog in offline relating. The fourth phase seeks to explore such forms of maintenance, and although such work is in its infancy, it has already produced heuristic avenues for future investigation. Across a series of three studies, McEwan, Fletcher, Eden, and Sumner (2014) identified two forms of Facebook relational maintenance (alongside the traditional Stafford & Canary, 1991, category of relational assurances): (a) social contact, or behaviors designed to initiate interaction with a friend (e.g., “I like my friend’s status updates”), and (b) response-seeking, or public messages intended to elicit a response from a friend (e.g., “I seek support by posting emotional news in hopes that s/he responds”). Although McEwan and her colleagues found positive associations between both new maintenance forms and relationship quality (e.g., satisfaction and closeness, among others), a separate study by McEwan (2013) found response-seeking (termed sharing in that report) was associated with reduced relational satisfaction in friendship dyads, perhaps owing to the extent response-seeking reflects narcissism. The dyadic nature of the data in McEwan (2013) may account for its different findings in comparison to McEwan et al. (2014). Beyond social contact and response seeking, social media users may also maintain their relationships by surveilling, or covert observation of another person’s social media profile and activity (McEwan, 2013).

Relatedly, Vitak (2012) also searched for dimensions of relational maintenance behavior on Facebook, identifying four: (a) supportive communication (e.g., “When I see [person’s name] sharing good news on Facebook, I'll like his/her update”), (b) shared interests (e.g., “[Person’s name] and I use Facebook to talk about a shared interest, sport, and/or hobby”), (c) passive browsing (e.g., “I browse photo albums posted in [person’s name]'s profile”), and (d) social information seeking (e.g., “I keep up to date on [person’s name] day-to-day activities through Facebook”). All four dimensions exhibited positive associations with relational outcomes except for social information seeking, which predicted diminished relational quality. Synthesizing this set of findings with McEwan (2013), it appears that the affordance of public visibility (McEwan & Fox, 2015) may particularly shape the antecedents and outcomes of relational maintenance. Excessive disclosures may be perceived as narcissistic (McEwan, 2013) or, perhaps, as superficial (Rains, Brunner, & Oman, 2016), and recipients of such disclosures may evaluate them negatively. Although both McEwan’s (2013) and Vitak’s (2012) work represents a heuristic advance toward understanding relational maintenance, future work should develop theoretical explanations for why specific affordances may produce specific maintenance behaviors which, in turn, produce specific relational and psychosocial outcomes.

In summary, then, research focusing on the medium used to enact maintenance has proceeded in four phases: (a) treating medium as a separate category, (b) establishing the existence of mediated maintenance, (c) examining maintenance and multimodality, and (d) examining how medium affordances give rise to new maintenance forms. The first two traditions, although important, raised questions that scholars have largely settled: Medium and message act distinctly vis-à-vis relational maintenance, and relational maintenance occurs via many different channels. The latter two traditions represent ongoing lines of inquiry into how people use multiple channels to maintain interpersonal relationships. However, social media inherently call attention to how relationships are embedded within broader social network structures (Parks, 2007) and how the nature of the interaction within these structures may influence well-being (e.g., Christakis & Fowler, 2007). The final process considered here addresses how social media reconfigures human social networks.

Processes of Social Network Reconfiguration

Of all the ideas that have given rise to the Internet, the concept of the network exerts perhaps the most pervasive influence. At its heart, the Internet is a network of computer networks, and this structure mimics, to a certain degree, the networked structure of the human brain (Ryan, 2010). To some extent, the history of online relating is one of adding a layer of social networks atop this hardware network layer. At first, these network connections appeared in more primitive form, through message board discussions and e-mail listservs. Later, instant messaging “buddy lists” and the like began to articulate network contacts more visibly, culminating eventually in the creation of social networking sites (or social media) designed to foster and exploit relational ties among people. The most frequently cited definition of social networking sites emphasizes how affordances clarify social network ties: a site that permits a user to “(1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (boyd & Ellison, 2008, p. 211). In a follow-up manuscript, Ellison and boyd (2013) further refined their definition: “a networked communication platform in which participants 1) have uniquely identifiable profiles that consist of user-supplied content, content provided by other users, and/or system-level data; 2) can publicly articulate connections that can be viewed and traversed by others; and 3) can consume, produce, and/or interact with streams of user-generated content provided by their connections on the site” (p. 158, emphasis in original). Both definitions emphasize networks; indeed, in both articles the authors contend that social network sites is a preferred term to social networking sites (although the latter remains the more popular term in both lay and academic discourse).

Thus, although social media serve as perhaps the clearest instantiation of online network processes, they build upon other technologies that sought to facilitate network contact. Likewise, social scientists devoted attention to social networks long before social media rendered them particularly salient. Granovetter’s (1973) essay has served as a watershed, arguing that social science to that date had devoted an inordinate amount of attention to strong ties, or social connections characterized by a large investment of time, a high degree of affect, intimate self-disclosure, and shared resources. Family, close friends, and romantic partners serve as exemplars of such strong ties. Despite the important function of such ties for providing a sense of belonging and connectedness, Granovetter contended that weak ties also serve an important social function. Weak ties provide access to a diverse set of ideas, resources, and interpersonal connections beyond the more cohesive strong tie network; on a more macro level, such ties function as a sort of social “glue” that renders collective social action possible. Particularly important within a social network are bridging ties that connect separate strong tie groups. Granovetter’s (1973) claims about strong and weak ties have exerted potent influence on the development of theory pertaining to social media. For example, media multiplexity theory has contended that the number of media used by interpersonal partners functions as an additional indicant of tie strength; the theory also has recognized that social media generate latent ties, or social connections that the hardware layer could facilitate but have not yet been activated socially (Haythornthwaite, 2005).

Social Capital and Social Support

Whereas Granovetter’s (1973) work elaborated the nature and function of ties within social networks, theory and research on social capital have elaborated the resources exchanged across the social network. Although Ellison and her colleagues (2007) noted that scholars across diverse fields have offered diverse conceptualizations of social capital, scholars generally characterize social capital as “the resources accumulated through the relationships among people” (p. 1145). Closely related is the concept of social support, which also emphasizes the exchange of resources, albeit with an eye toward helping meet a need (or to provide a sense that help is available to buffer against future needs; Burleson & MacGeorge, 2002). Although the study of online social support predates social media (Dunham et al., 1998; Mickelson, 1997), the advent of that technology has stimulated a productive line of research identifying how social media facilitates social capital and social support.

In 1998, Kraut and his colleagues’ study of the Internet’s impact on psychosocial well-being generated concern about deleterious health outcomes associated with Internet use. One limitation of the Kraut et al. project was its focus on individuals as the unit of analysis, and although future work on individuals failed to replicate those findings (Kraut et al., 2002), social network scholars sought to empirically substantiate or redress the highly publicized concerns in the original 1998 report. Specifically, scholars debated two perspectives on how Internet use may impact social networks. One perspective framed the effect of the Internet as time displacement: Because time is a zero-sum resource (i.e., once it is invested in one activity, that time cannot be invested in another; Putnam, 2000), time spent on the Internet must, of necessity, come from some other activity, likely including time that would otherwise be spent with (perhaps more meaningful) local family and friends (Nie, Hillygus, & Erbring, 2002). The second perspective, termed by some as the rich-get-richer approach (Kraut et al., 2002), notes that the impact of technology on community is not new; for example, people expressed similar concerns about the telephone (Fischer, 1992), even though the telephone supports interpersonal ties, especially at a distance (Wellman, 1979). The Internet may do likewise, facilitating and enhancing interaction across other media rather than detracting from it. Specifically, Wellman and his colleagues (2003) located the Internet as part of an overarching historical trend toward networked individualism, where ties are no longer between two places (i.e., one landline phone to another), but rather between two persons (i.e., one cell phone to another—contact between persons regardless of location). The Internet therefore reconfigures social networks, but may do so in a way that enhances network ties and creates opportunities to develop new ones.

Although debate between the time displacement and community enhancement (i.e., rich-get-richer) approaches continues, and likely will continue into the future (e.g., Turkle, 2011), the majority of the extant research seems to support the community enhancement hypothesis as a general rule (Valkenburg & Peter, 2007), and in the case of social media, the affordances of the technology contribute to social support above and beyond the size and composition of the social network itself (Lu & Hampton, 2016). However, some important exceptions to this trend may exist. For example, although frequent online gaming may enhance relational connections with fellow online gamers (Ledbetter & Kuznekoff, 2012), those connections may occur at the expense of local relationships (Williams, 2006). Some people find the social use of the Internet to be compulsive, or difficult to control, and such use may be driven by lack of competence in face-to-face relating (Caplan, 2005) as well as by positive attitudes toward online communication as a medium for connection and self-disclosure (Mazer & Ledbetter, 2012). This compulsive preference may lead to Internet use that detracts from social, educational, and occupational activities that occur offline (Caplan, 2007). Even when not driven by compulsive use, online interpersonal communication has a “dark side,” with affordances of the medium sometimes facilitating cyberbullying (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011), hostile sexism (Kasumovic & Kuznekoff, 2015), and negative (as well as positive) emotional contagion (Kramer et al., 2014). In other situations, the structure of an online network may be highly insular and interconnected, thus inhibiting social capital formation (Brooks, Hogan, Ellison, Lampe, & Vitak, 2014).

Without diminishing the importance of cases where Internet use may harm network quality and personal well-being, when viewed more generally, Internet access seems to strengthen network ties. At the turn of the 21st century, scholars demonstrated this trend regarding Internet use overall (e.g., Wellman et al., 2003), but, more recently, research has devoted attention to social media. In addition to the bonding capital and bridging capital identified in previous research (associated with strong and weak ties, respectively; Putnam, 2000), the affordances of social media facilitate maintained capital, or social resources that persist across major life changes such as geographic relocation. As late as 1979, geographic distance beyond 50 miles decreased face-to-face contact and distance beyond 100 miles decreased telephone contact (likely due to long-distance telephone charges; Mok et al., 2007). The Internet (and lack of long-distance calling charges for cell phones) decreased the cost of long-distance communication, enabling more frequent contact across transitions such as young adult children leaving the parental home for college (Cummings, Lee, & Kraut, 2006). Although such maintained capital existed prior to social media, social media makes social network ties particularly visible and persistent (boyd & Ellison, 2008). Among college students, intensity of Facebook use is positively associated with maintained capital as well as bonding and bridging capital (Ellison et al., 2007). Later work differentiated between the total number of Facebook friends and the number of “actual” friends, finding that bridging (i.e., weak-tie) and bonding (i.e., strong-tie) capital are positively associated with the latter (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2011). Thus, social media may facilitate a smooth transition to college (DeAndrea, Ellison, LaRose, Steinfield, & Fiore, 2012; Gray, Vitak, Ellison, & Easton, 2013) and may help across other life transitions as well. For example, the birth of a first child often disrupts a woman’s social network, but access to social media may provide a sense of ongoing connection and support that is available without leaving the home (McDaniel, Coyne, & Holmes, 2012). Although research has yet to examine how social media may influence the experience of military deployment, the Internet facilitates relational maintenance during that experience (Merolla, 2010) and may aid post-deployment reintegration (but perhaps only when relational satisfaction is high; Carter, Loew, Allen, Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2011).

Context Collapse, Privacy, and Perpetual Contact

By permitting distribution of messages to all social contacts, the affordances of social media create an environment that is akin to having many of the members of a person’s social network together in the same space. Thus, social media fosters context collapse, or “[flattening] multiple audiences into one” (Marwick & boyd, 2011, p. 122). On one hand, context collapse may increase access to information (Lampe, Vitak, Gray, & Ellison, 2012) and other forms of social support (Vitak & Ellison, 2013). On the other hand, by eliding traditional geographic barriers to interaction across groups, context collapse introduces a degree of confusion regarding appropriate communication behavior via social media. For example, a self-disclosure that would be received with empathy by family members may be too emotional for workplace ties (Vitak, Lampe, Gray, & Ellison, 2012). Thus, social media communication involves carefully managing content in a way that meets self-presentational needs across multiple audiences.

To manage the inherent contradictory desires between self-disclosure (that may elicit support; Manago, Taylor, & Greenfield, 2012) and informational control, some users may employ the privacy settings afforded by social media sites. As of this writing, the nature of these controls varies from site to site, particularly regarding their specificity. For example, Twitter’s privacy controls are rather blunt, forcing users to decide whether tweets will be publicly open to all Internet users or only to all followers. In contrast, Facebook allows more specific control of posting content through lists, and the design of Google+ encourages users to group their contacts into “circles” that structure content sharing. Although these controls may not always foster the level of control that users desire (Liu, Gummadi, Krishnamurthy, & Mislove, 2011), some evidence indicates that users frequently employ them to control private information on social media (boyd & Hargittai, 2010).

Although context collapse may motivate use of privacy settings and self-censorship of information (Marwick & boyd, 2011), it does not appear to mitigate against forming social media connections in the first place, even in situations where that may seem likely. For example, despite privacy concerns, people tend to be willing to form social media connections with work colleagues (Frampton & Child, 2013). In the family context, although parents may use computer-mediated means to invade privacy and such invasions may reduce family satisfaction (Ledbetter & Vik, 2012), young adults nevertheless tend to accept parental friend requests and make few adjustments to privacy settings in response to parental presence on the site (Child & Westerman, 2013). Indeed, the existence of a social media tie between parent and child may enhance the quality of the parent-child relationship, not harm it (Kanter, Afifi, & Robbins, 2012). At the same time, however, the perpetual contact afforded by social media may also foster overdependence on family through “helicopter parenting” (i.e., parents who “hover” over their child in order to protect and guide them, inhibiting development of the young adult child’s autonomy; LeMoyne & Buchanan, 2011).

Although social media serves as a salient feature of the technological landscape, mobility is perhaps equally salient and intersects with social media to provide not only context collapse but also nearly ubiquitous access to the (multiple) social media audience(s). Katz and Aakhus (2002) identified this perpetual contact between social network members as an important change wrought by cell phone access. As such, cell phones emphasize connection between relational partners, yet research in the tradition of relational dialectics has contended that relationships must manage the inherent tension between the desire for connection and desire for autonomy (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996). Excessive calling and texting may threaten this desire for autonomy and lead to relational dissatisfaction in romantic (Duran, Kelly, & Rotaru, 2011) and friendship (Hall & Baym, 2012) relationships.

Taken overall, then, communication technology generally (and perhaps social media and mobility most potently) reconfigures social network processes. These reconfigurations transcend the other three processes addressed in this article, yet also highlight them: Through social network reconfiguration, technology offers (a) several modalities for interpersonal communication among which relational partners must select, (b) opportunities to build new relationships (i.e., relational initiation), and (c) the ability to (perpetually) maintain established relationships. Although in some cases this reconfiguration may produce negative psychosocial outcomes, these technologies, broadly speaking, seem to enhance social networks and psychosocial well-being rather than harm them.

Discussion of the Literature

Viewed over the span of the past four decades, the literature on interpersonal use of communication technology exhibits remarkable change in its guiding assumptions and foci of interest. To some extent, this parallels the rapid development of technology and public understanding of it. Overall, the story of the literature to date is one of success in face of challenges. Despite a quickly evolving object of study and despite initial scholarly and lay assumptions that online communication mitigates against interpersonal communication, careful theorizing and programmatic research shed light on how interpersonal processes occur through communication technology. To the extent that the literature has identified enduring concerns versus passing trends, the base of theory and empirical findings should serve scholars well as they tackle future technological changes and revolutions.

A recent content analysis of communication journals between 1998 and 2013 sought to identify such enduring concerns in the communication technology literature (Borah, 2015). Disturbingly, the study found that, of the 3,316 articles examined, 69.6% of the articles did not use a specific theory to guide analysis. This is unfortunate not only because theory provides the foundation for advancing knowledge about communication technology and applying it, especially as communication technology becomes ever more central to social life (Walther, 2009), but also because interpersonal communication technology scholars have generated a wealth of guiding theory. Borah (2015) found that the most frequently employed theory was uses and gratifications, which has deep roots in the communication discipline (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974). It is worth noting that Walther’s (1996) elaboration of social information processing theory and the hyper personal perspective remains the most frequently cited article published in Communication Research; media multiplexity theory represents a theory of particular contemporary interest (Haythornthwaite, 2005), and new efforts to expand theory appear with regularity (e.g., the functional model of self-disclosure; Bazarova & Choi, 2014). The field cannot continue to ignore this theoretical base, especially as many published theories are still relatively young and await empirical refinement.

One such area of refinement regards the basic conceptualization of communication technology. For too long, the field has framed a lack of nonverbal cues as the defining feature of computer-mediated communication. Indeed, it is challenging to identify a theory or model that does not feature this assumption as a fundamental part of its theoretical “engine.” Yet, as communication technology advances, it affords more capability for aural and visual cues, thus diminishing the ecological validity of cues-impoverished assumptions. Established theories must reckon with the increasingly non-textual nature of online communication; for example, recent scholarship has leveraged social information processing theory to understand attributions assigned to online photographs (D’Angelo & Van Der Heide, 2016). Equally important, current and future theory development should recognize textuality as but one facet of medium affordances and, accordingly, incorporate other affordances, such as mobility and publicity.

Likewise, multimodality (i.e., how multiple media function together to maintain interpersonal relationships) represents an enduring concern. The field has made progress since Walther and Parks (2002) emphasized its importance, but work remains to be done. Specifically, some work has proceeded with the assumption that multimodality is important without clarifying why it is important or what theory regarding it should aim to accomplish; indeed, after commending multimodality as an area of focus, Walther (2009) later bemoaned this lack of purpose regarding research on it. Toward at least a modicum of clarity on this point, Ledbetter (2014b) recommended three possible ways media and content may function together: (a) medium may modify content (i.e., using one medium for a message may be more effective than choosing a different medium), (b) media may function together as part of a causal chain (i.e., use of one medium may lead to use of another specific medium (e.g., a text message to follow-up on an e-mail), or (c) media may be considered an aspect of interpersonal relationships without regard to message content (e.g., use of multiple media may signal tie strength; Haythornthwaite, 2005). Also pertinent, Caughlin and Sharabi (2013) demonstrated that some transitions between media may function more smoothly than others for interpersonal partners, thus opening a conceptual space to consider multimodal transitions within the framework of communication competence. With these and other insights in view, future work on multimodality should exert concerted effort toward identifying what questions a theory of multimodality should answer and what social problems it should aim to solve.

Finally, the literature displays some myopia regarding specific technologies of interest. Case in point, current research on social media has focused predominantly on Facebook (Rains & Brunner, 2015). Although this makes sense to a certain extent, as Facebook serves as the most frequently used social media site on the planet, results obtained from the study of Facebook may not generalize to other sites with different populations, histories, and affordances. Efforts to diversify scholarship to other sites and technologies (e.g., SnapChat; Bayer, Ellison, Schoenebeck, & Falk, 2016) are worth doing, especially when they compare results across more than one site. But whether studying Facebook, e-mail, or the latest technology-of-the-moment, such research must proceed from guiding theory and prior research, for “new technologies come and go but the human context within they are used remains” (Sawhney, 2007, p. 400).

Further Reading

Borah, P. (2015). Emerging communication technology research: Theoretical and methodological variables in the last 16 years and future directions. New Media & Society, 19(4), 616–636.Find this resource:

    Burke, M., Marlow, C., & Lento, T. (2010). Social network activity and social well-being. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1909–1912). New York: ACM.Find this resource:

      Donath, J. (2007). Signals in social supernets. Journal of Computer: Mediated Communication, 13, 231–251.Find this resource:

        Ellison, N. B., & boyd, d. (2013). Sociality through social network sites. In W. H. Dutton (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of Internet studies (pp. 151–172). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

          Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends”: Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer: Mediated Communication, 12, 1143–1168.Find this resource:

            Hall, J. A., & Baym, N. K. (2012). Calling and texting (too much): Mobile maintenance expectations, (over)dependence, entrapment, and friendship satisfaction. New Media & Society, 14, 316–331.Find this resource:

              Haythornthwaite, C. (2005). Social networks and Internet connectivity effects. Information, Communication & Society, 8, 125–147.Find this resource:

                Marwick, A. E., & boyd, d. (2011). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media & Society, 13, 114–133.Find this resource:

                  McEwan, B. (2015). Navigating new media networks: Managing communication challenges in a networked society. Lanham, MA: Lexington.Find this resource:

                    Rains, S. A., & Brunner, S. R. (2015). What can we learn about social network sites by studying Facebook? A call and recommendations for research on social network sites. New Media & Society, 17, 114–131.Find this resource:

                      Ramirez Jr., A., & Zhang, S. (2007). When online meets offline: The effects of modality switching on relational communication. Communication Monographs, 74, 287–310.Find this resource:

                        Ryan, J. (2010). A history of the Internet and the digital future. London: Reaktion Books.Find this resource:

                          Steinkuehler, C. A., & Williams, D. (2006). Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as “third places.Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11, 885–909.Find this resource:

                            Walther, J. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23, 3–43.Find this resource:

                              Walther, J. B. (2011). Theories of computer-mediated communication and interpersonal relations. In M. L. Knapp & J. A. Daly (Eds.), Handbook of interpersonal communication (4th ed., pp. 443–479). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

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