Computer mediated communication (CMC) is the study of any communication that takes place using electronic devices. This can include communication that is one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many. Likewise, this communication can be text, voice, or video-based. Furthermore, CMC can vary in terms of its synchronicity, with synchronous communication happening in real time, while asynchronous communication involves delays between messages. Traditionally, this area of study examined interactions that required a computer, but a contemporary definition includes communication using other electronic devices (e.g., text messaging through a cell phone).

Scholars who study CMC are largely interested in the effects technology has on social interactions and relationship development. This leads to questions about how technology effects self-presentation, self-disclosure, disinhibition, aggressive communication (e.g., flaming), development of group identity, and much more. Early studies focused on comparing CMC to face-to-face interaction. Given that CMC is so pervasive in everyday life, scholars have now broadened their horizons beyond this comparison to examine the blurring of real and virtual selves. For example, there is a growing body of research examining the extent to which virtual avatars and pseudonyms can affect self-identity in all contexts of life.

Defining Computer Mediated Communication

In defining CMC, it is important to note that CMC can be seen on a spectrum ranging from synchronous to asynchronous. Synchronous communication takes place in real time, while asynchronous communication involves delays. Highly synchronous communication would include communication like video calls (e.g., Skype) while highly asynchronous communication would include forms of communication like email. As one might imagine, examples like text messaging and chat fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum given that these forms of communication can involve significant delays or be nearly immediate.

Likewise, CMC can also be divided into various types of CMC based on media richness. Forms of CMC with high media richness have more opportunity for the transmission of social cues, greater opportunity for feedback, a higher potential for natural language, and an increased opportunity for message personalization. For example, video chat has high media richness given that it can transmit voice and visual cues, includes a great amount of immediate feedback, reflects natural language, and is typically very personalized. In contrast, texting has lower media richness given that there is less opportunity for feedback and less non-verbals and social cues (though it is important to note that communicators can use emojis as a stand-in for traditional nonverbals).

Finally, CMC can take place in a one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many communication exchange. To illustrate, an individual can exchange emails with their friend and a CEO can send a company-wide email. Both cases would be considered CMC.

Common Computer Mediated Communication Theories and Models

Over time, scholars have built various theories and models to explain CMC phenomena. These theories and models continue to be developed every year, and new theories will be developed over time to help explain how CMC relates to relationship development, social interaction, and formation of identity. The following sections review some of the most well-known theories and models, which are commonly cited in communication research.

Social Presence Theory: This theory suggests that different forms of CMC vary in their ability to transmit nonverbal cues, and that as nonverbal cues decrease, so does closeness, warmth, and immediacy. This theory was somewhat undermined by the findings of later research. However, the findings of later research support the notion that face-to-face communication is not always better than CMC. As a result, researchers still lean on social presence theory as they try to understand the effects of decreased nonverbal cues in various contexts.

Media Richness Theory: Media richness theory is used to discuss the effects of CMC media richness as it increases or decreases. As discussed earlier, media is considered more rich as the ability to transmit social cues increases, the opportunity for feedback increases, the potential for natural language increases, and personalization increases. As an illustration, a researcher might be interested in how media richness affects requests for support between family members, and their corresponding outcomes. This researcher might posit that a request made through richer media is more likely to motivate compliance.

Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE): Early CMC researchers relied heavily on SIDE, though later research presented empirical challenges and SIDE is now used in a more limited capacity. This theory posits that decreased social cues and increased anonymity cause communicators to lose a sense of self and a sense of other. This deindividuation causes communicators to resort to social groups and group membership as a way of understanding the self and other.

Electronic Propinquity Theory: Electronic propinquity is the psychological closeness that communicators feel to one another in CMC interactions and within a virtual context. This leads to questions like, “How do various communication channels of varying synchronicity and richness affect propinquity?” and “How does one’s communication rules for a specific medium, and a subsequent violation of those rules by a communication partner, impede the ability for propinquity to develop between communicators?”

Social Influence Theory: Social influence theory stands in contrast to theories like media richness theory, suggesting that the richness of a medium is not inherent in the medium itself. Rather, social influence theory suggests that media richness can be socially constructed. For example, this theory argues that an individual’s experience with a certain medium can influence their perception of how that medium should be used. Likewise, this theory suggests that one’s past experiences with a certain medium influence the user’s perception of the quality of that medium.

Social Information Processing Theory (SIP): SIP states, like other theories, that CMC often lacks or limits social cues. Unlike other theories, SIP argues that humans innately seek to build and develop interpersonal relationships. As a result, this theory argues that communicators will rely upon other cues to transmit relational meaning in spite of the lack of social cues. Some examples of other cues include emoticons, communication content, communication style, and paraverbal communication.

The Hyperpersonal Model of Communication: The hyperpersonal model of communication stands in contrast to earlier theories and models that suggested that CMC is inferior to face-to-face communication. Rather, the hyperpersonal model suggests that while humans develop interpersonal relationships in face-to-face settings, it is possible for communicators to develop closer, hyperpersonal relationships in computer mediated relationships.

This process is based on a feedback loop, which starts with a message being sent. Senders often attempt to portray themselves in the best light possible, a process known as selective self-presentation. This message is received by another communicator. With the absence of additional information or social cues, the receiver focuses on the positive attributes of the sender’s message, often overestimating the personal attributes of the sender. This process can be aided based upon the channel being used for communication. Asynchronous channels allow for greater selective self-presentation given that the communicator has more time to compose a message. Throughout interactions, feedback is given between communicators aiding in the process of selective self-presentation. If a communicator receives a cue that their message was poorly received, they can alter their presentation of self to be more attuned to the other communicator’s preferences. Ultimately, this feedback loop can result in a hyperpersonal relationship in which communicators consistently present an ideal form of self based on the likes and dislikes of the other communicator. Indeed, there is evidence suggesting that this can even impact an individual’s concept of self — a process known as identity shift.

Additional Resources on CMC

Computer mediated communication is an ever-evolving field, changing as new research is published and new technologies emerge. Students who wish to learn more about CMC should review the following resources:

About the Author: Caleb Malik is a digital marketing strategist. He earned his Master's in Communication from Illinois State University, where he focused on organizational communication and quantitative research methods.