Relational Communication in Computer-Mediated Interaction Revisited: A Comparison of Participant–Observer Perspectives

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social information processing theory, participant–observer effects, relational communication, computer-mediated communication

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Studies of online environments estimate that the majority of members in online forums do not contribute to ongoing discussions and only observe or “lurk” (e.g., Nonnecke & Preece, 2000). Despite the prevalence of this form of information acquisition, direct comparisons between the experiences of these “observers” (or “lurkers”) and active participants are lacking. The present research draws on previous research examining perceptual differences between participants and observers as well as social information processing theory (Walther, 1992) and reports on three studies examining such differences in computer-mediated communication (CMC). Study 1 examined the effects in the context of interpersonal interaction in synchronous CMC. Study 2 examined the effects in the context of group interaction in both synchronous and asynchronous CMC. Study 3 replicated and extended the results of the previous studies across two time periods. The overall results (a) support the presence of participant–observer differences in CMC, (b) show that the presence of anticipated future interaction moderates said differences, and (c) provide mixed evidence that participant and observer interpretations of relational messages converge over time.

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Communication Monographs, v. 74, issue 4, p. 492-516.