The literature review mainly presents three theoretical perspectives in addressing the sociality of text-based Computer-mediated Communication: the impersonal, interpersonal and hyperpersonal perspective. Major theories, models and related studies in these three perspectives are reviewed, compared and briefly critiqued. Based on prior empirical research, the review identified that CMC is capable of relational communication in most circumstances; however, the sociality of CMC is not uniformly reduced or increased in that both the medium and the communicators are under the influence of multiple factors. A few potential research topics regarding this field are also pointed out in the review.

The Sociality of Text-based Computer-mediate Communication A Review of the Literature

In recent years, along with the rapid development of the Internet, computer-mediated communication (CMC) has continued to grow in use and popularity among academic, business and private users (Bargh, McKenna, & Fitzsimons, 2002). Accompanying this growth has been various social science theories or models concerning people's social-psychological or behavioral patterns under the influence of this new medium.

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Our current review focuses predominantly on text-based CMC condition, which can be either synchronous, as in Internet chat rooms or instant messaging, or asynchronous, as in electronic mails or bulletin board systems. The review is organized around three main theoretical approaches regarding the sociality in text-based CMC. First, admitting the medium has some obvious practical social benefits, such as decreasing the importance of geographical proximity, early social psychological research has focused more on the paucity of non-verbal cues in CMC which may undermine the people's interaction efficiency. Such a view accounts for the first theoretical approach - the impersonal perspective - presented in the review. Later on, various empirical findings offered contrasting images of the medium, showing the possible interpersonal relationships developed in the medium, which is regarded as the "interpersonal perspective". In 1996, Walther went one step further and created a concept - "hyperpersonal communication" to explain why sometimes in-depth interpersonal communication or more exaggerated impression can be formed in CMC as opposed to parallel face-to-face (FtF) communication.

Though three perspectives reviewed below vary considerably in terms of their underlying theoretical foundations, the recurring theme is the extent to which CMC should be regarded as a medium that is capable of supporting social relations. By reviewing psychological principles and empirical study results, and proposing future research directions, this literature review tries to shed some light on this multi-faceted topic - the sociality of CMC.

Impersonal Perspective

Early research on text-based CMC is based on the assumption that this limited information transmission channel eliminates and modifies interpersonal and social context cues (e.g.: audio and visual cues in FtF communication), and hence hinders the effective social interactions among communicators (e.g.: Daft & Lengel, 1986; Short et al., 1976; Siegel et al., 1986; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). In this section, several of the most influential early approaches within this impersonal perspective will be presented, compared and critiqued.

Bandwidth Hypothesis & Media Richness Theory

Different media can be categorized in terms of their "bandwidth" or "richness", according to the bandwidth hypothesis and the media richness theory, which are two early theoretical attempts argue for CMC's inefficiency in transmitting information. The bandwidth hypothesis, which originates from Shannon and Weaver's information theory (1949), emphasizes the elimination of visual or audio cues have casted influence on communication behaviors and processes (Reviewed by Whittaker, 2003). Media richness theory, on the other hand, emerges from organizational communication research, in which Daft et al. (1987) claims that mediums are different in their equivocality which matches with different communication needs (Daft et al., 1987). Both theories posit that various mediums are essentially different in their information transmission ability. The closer the medium corresponds to the cues available in FtF settings, the wider bandwidth it has, and hence the richer it is. Major implications derived from these two theories are: (1) Communication efficiency is largely influenced by different mediums' bandwidth or richness; (2) Instead of social interactions, text-based CMC can only be regarded as a lean medium which can mainly expected to carry out routines or tasks in low equivocality due to its scarcity of interpersonal and social contextual cues (Daft & Lengel, 1986; Daft et al., 1987). Critiques on these two implications will be presented later.

Social Presence Theory

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Similar to the media bandwidth and richness, "social presence" is another property that can differentiate various mediums in terms of their sociality level. The concept is first raised by Short et al. (1976) in social presence theory. Short and his colleagues defined "social presence" as the degree of a communicator's awareness of his/her interaction partner's physical or emotional details, which usually include cues in appearance, facial expressions, gesture, attitudes, etc. (Short et al., 1976). Those vocal and non-verbal details are crucial to communicators' understanding towards each other's characteristics, motivations and inner states. Based on the absences of those interpersonal cues, Short et al. assert that electronic communication system is considered low in social presence, and thus differs from FtF conditions in their capacity to convey relational messages. According to the theory, while CMC may support "task-oriented activities" (i.e.: information exchange, text edit, etc.) well, it is less efficient in supporting "relationship-oriented activities" such as making an acquaintance with someone, which requires "high personal involvement" (Reviewed by Dennis & Kinney, 1998, p.268). The theory has fostered the assumption that text-based CMC is less social-oriented than parallel FtF conditions.

Reduced Social Cues Theory

In FtF conditions, communication happens in certain social situations and communicators represent different social groups, therefore the context cues (e.g. group identities, relative status) are naturally conveyed through environmental features and communicators' physical appearances or manners. While the social presence theory emphasizes on the reduction of interpersonal cues, the reduced social cues theory (Siegel et al., 1986; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986) focuses primarily on the absence of environmental and contextual cues in mediated communication.

Two effects, disinhibition effect and liberation effect are likely to be elicited along with the diminished background information in text-based CMC. The disinhibition effect, which is usually represented by more extreme, hostile or even sometimes insulting language, is caused by the slowness and inefficiency of information exchange in CMC (Spears, Lea, & Postmes, 2001). Such effect will undermine the interpersonal relations in cyber space. The liberation effect on the other hand, is beneficial, in that the reduced social cues blur communicators' group boundaries and hierarchical differences fin status, and thus positively promotes the equalization of participation in CMC (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986).

Taking both the social presence theory and the reduced social cues theory into consideration, Culnan and Markus concluded a cues filtered-out (CFO) perspective which accounts for the impersonal nature of CMC (Culnan & Markus, 1987). The unifying theme central to the impersonal perspective is that the paucity of socio-emotional or physical cues inhabits interpersonal relation development in CMC and thus causes inefficiency in social interaction (e.g.: Spears & Lea, 1992; Walther, 1996)

Problems with the Impersonal Perspectives

To summarize, the above theories differentiate the sociality of mediums in terms of their "information-processing capacity" (Spears et al., 2001, p. 605). CMC, in which the limited channels have constrained the amount of information transmitted under a given time, is inevitably labeled with an impersonal tone in social interactions. Though had prominently influenced the early CMC research, those theoretical claims have been called into question by a number of empirical findings in recent years.

First, research (e.g.: Chapanis et al., 1972) shows adding a visual channel to communication does not necessarily lead to performance improvements, which casts doubts on the necessary connection between medium's information capacity and its efficiency. Furthermore, in a lab study with 132 subjects, Dennis and Kinney found that it was medium's "immediacy of feedback" (i.e.: how fast people can get response of their partner from the medium) rather than its richness that to a greater extent influenced people's media choice, and interestingly, people do not always expect feedbacks to be the faster the better (Dennis & Kinney, 1998, p. 259). Based on this research, they predicted that "a manager may deliberately choose a text-based medium for emotionally laden information to allow the receiver time and privacy to respond appropriately to the information" (Dennis & Kinney, 1998, p. 270), which essentially resonates with the theme of O'Sullivan's online impression management model (2000). O'Sullivan claimes that uncertainty is not always undesirable in the interpersonal communication so that it sometimes leads to individual's preference in choosing CMC for social interactions (the model will be reviewed later in the hyperpersonal section). It is not difficult to infer that the nature of CMC's sociality is much more complex than the bandwidth hypothesis or the media richness theory have originally predicted.

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By the same token, the cues filtered-out perspective (CFO) is proved to have underestimated the socio-emotional messages conveyed in text-based CMC. Lea and Spears (1992) conducted research on paralanguage use in CMC. By using language manipulation, participants reported that they have made inference of their partners' personality, emotional status and behavior intentions based on the social information conveyed purely by the linguistic mode. Moreover, Joinson (2001) observed a higher level of self-disclosure and self-awareness in text-based CMC in his study. Later on, research literatures concerning acquaintance, friendship and even romance developed online has continued to grow, and soundly confirm the social efficiency of CMC (e.g.: Chan & Cheng, 2004; Wang & Andersen, 2007).

Still, one might question that, if the impersonal theories are not the case, what could explain the early experiment results within this perspective? One possible reason account for the plausible impersonal tone of this medium is the time constrain during the experiment process (Spears et al., 2001). The social information cannot be fully processed in CMC under a time constrain due to participants' typing speed and the amount of information exchanged (Dennis & Kinney, 1998). Moreover, participant's experience, their identities (anonymous or real) and the expectancy for the future offline interactions (Postmes et al., 1998; Ramirez & Wang, 2008; Walther, 1996) are also essential to the sociality level of CMC. Without taking those factors into consideration, the simplified assumptions made by the impersonal perspective are untenable.

Nevertheless, certain elements in the impersonal perspective do positively influence the subsequent research. For example, the reduced social cues theory has identified the importance of group identity and behavior in understanding the social-psychological aspects of CMC. It might potentially influence the social identification model of deindividuation effects (Spears & Lea, 1994), which later became a strong argument for the interpersonal nature of CMC.

Interpersonal Perspective

As discussed above, a number of critiques and contradictory empirical findings have called into question the earlier theoretical claims forwarded by the impersonal perspective of CMC. Among all those challenges to the lack of sociality of CMC, several important theories include social information processing (SIP) theory and social identification/deindividualtion (SIDE) model.

Social Information Processing Theory

The theory was first raised by Walther in 1992 as a new research perspective regarding CMC's relational aspect. It mainly claims that the linguistic behavior of CMC users will gradually change from impersonal to socially revealing. CMC is indeed capable of conveying the same amount of social information as the FtF condition if given enough time (Walther et al., 1994). Two key underlying assumptions of the theory are (1) relational meanings can be conveyed via pure verbal and textual messages; (2) CMC can be just as effective as FtF in social interactions, except that the former takes longer time (Walther & Burgoon, 1992).

The first assumption is soundly supported by various research on paralanguage use in CMC. Just as how we use physical appearance and behavioral cues to judge a person's personalities or mood in FtF, "content and linguistic strategies", "chronemic" or "typographic cues" can be used to infer similar kinds of social meanings (Reviewed by Tidwell & Walther, 2002, p. 319). Therefore, the limited cues in CMC don't necessarily lead to reduced sociality.

The second assumption reveals the importance of the temporal factor in sociality comparisons between FtF and CMC. Walther (1992) attribute the previous social inefficiency of CMC to researchers' incomplete measurement of the socio-emotional expressions in CMC. On one hand, participants were vary in terms of their typing speed, familiarity of the medium, the limited time in laboratory experiments constrained participants to fully develop relational communications; on the other hand, besides verbal messages, FtF has the advantage of conveying non-verbal messages which are in fact crucial to social interaction, so it takes time to compensate the missing of that part of information in CMC (Walther & Burgoon, 1992). Following this logic, Walther introduced the temporal effect to later CMC experiments so that researchers need to guarantee subjects are given sufficient time to convey relational messages. In one experiment conducted by Walther and Burgoon in 1992, participants were required to fill in questionnaires before, during and after they have had adequate time to communicate with each other both online or offline. The post experiment questionnaire included a set of rational themes: immediacy/affection, similarity/depth, etc. Although the experiment yields mixed results, CMC groups did develop social relationships positively as time accumulated. Walther concluded that "the effects of time were stronger than the effects of medium" (Walther & Burgoon, 1992, p. 77). Another study which was too conducted by Walther concerned the impression development in CMC. Though significant initial CMC/FtF differences were observed, impressions in CMC developed in a positive direction and have approximately achieved the same level as that in FtF condition (Walther, 1993). A meta-analysis done by Walther and his colleagues also provided evidence supporting the SIP theory (Walther et al., 1994)

Besides the emphasis on the temporal factor, the literature reviewed above also suggest that there are other elements impact the efficiency of relational development in CMC, such as familiarity with the medium, expectancy for future interactions, relational goals in communication, etc. (e.g.: Nardi, 2005; Walther & Parks, 2002; Walther et al., 1994). Therefore, the sociality of CMC is indeed developed under a framework of multidimensional factors.

The SIDE Model

Another model analyzing the social psychological aspect of CMC is termed SIDE, which stands for the social identity model of deindividuation effects (Spears & Lea, 1994). The model proposes a shift of self-awareness and identity from a personal level to a group level, in that individuals are not fixed entities but socially defined in multiple social categories (e.g.: gender, ethnicity, professional affiliations, etc.) (Spears et al., 2001, Tajfel & Turner, 2004).

There are two aspects of SIDE model: "strategic" and "cognitive". "Strategic" aspect analyzes the behavior of information senders. People tend to exhibit the normative behavior according to the social groups they belong to. "Cognitive" aspect describes the tendency for people to unconsciously stereotype their partner based on salient group identity (Lea, Spears & Groot, 2001; Spears et al., 2001). Far from reducing the interpersonal attention, the SIDE theory predicts that the group influence has provided CMC communicators abundant information to make their social judgments.

There are several possible consequences to the stereotyping behavior. Lea and Spears observed in their study on paralanguage in CMC that people tend to develop strong positive feelings to in-group members compared to the negative impression they form about the out-group members. The impressions were formed primarily based on paralinguistic or typographic cues in CMC conversations, which again proved the capability of CMC medium to transmit more than task-oriented information (Lea & Spears, 1992).

Another interesting consequence relates to "BIRG" (basking in reflected glory phenomenon) effect and "CORF" (cutting off the reflected failure) effect. Snyder et al. (1983) first used these terms to describe how individuals choose to associate themselves with social groups of positive images whereas keep distance with social groups with negative images. Joinson and Banyard (2002) observed a similar effect by assessing how a group of CMC users relate themselves as fans to winning team while avoiding the losing one. To sum up, SIDE theory predicts that CMC influences both people's behavior and their cognitive processes by reinforcing the group identify.

Many researchers are still working on identifying factors either facilitating or impeding the SIDE effect. One factor which produces mixed empirical results is "anonymity". According to the SIDE theory, the anonymous environment largely reduces individual differences, and hence enhances the group identity. However, some studies argues that the real identities promote more interpersonal bonds among group members as a basis for group cohesion and in turn strengthen the group image (e.g.: Walther, 1992). The mixed findings suggest a room for future research. A few possible directions are: first, the concept of anonymity should be "decomposed" into "self-anonymity" and "identifiablity of others" (Spears et al., 2001, p. 615); second, the level of anonymity can be more specified, from general information (i.e.: gender, age, etc.) to more personal and private ones (i.e.: profession, family, marriage, etc.) (Spears et al., 2001); third, groups vary in their time period (short-term / long-term), goal (task-oriented / social-oriented), etc. that all need to be taken into consideration (Spears et al., 2001, p. 616).

Although not without controversial findings, the existing literatures based on SIP and SIDE have on the whole proved the social capability of CMC. Moreover, various factors or elements they introduced have provided later CMC research with a multidimensional perspective. The diverse social phenomenon in CMC can hardly be explained by one single theory or factor. Therefore, researchers have been focused on identifying the influence of various external and internal factors on the relational communication in CMC. Some research even provided evidence showing that CMC can sometimes be a more sociable medium than FtF, which lead to the hyperpersonal perspective in the following section.

Hyperpersonal Perspective

In recent years, there are studies showing that CMC has sometimes surpassed the level of sociality of parallel FtF interactions, and could produce more intense emotions and leave communicators exaggerated impression of their partners. Walther has labeled this phenomenon as "hyperpersonal communication" (Walther, 1996). In this section, we will briefly go over the existing literature regarding this interesting perspective of CMC research.

Hyperpersonal Model

Hyperpersonal Model is a theoretic framework trying to explain more socially desirable interpersonal impressions developed in CMC. The overattributed perception by the information receiver and the selective self-presentation by the information sender are two major aspects that have been emphasized in the model (Walther, 1996).

First, as people build the impression of their partner primarily based on the limited social context and personality cues conveyed in CMC, the impression may be exaggerated based on a few minor clues revealed in conversations. The exaggeration or overattribution isn't universally positive or negative (Walther, 1996). For instance, it would promote liking if the partner is affiliated with a group identity with a positive image, whereas a few typing errors would lead to a negative impression.

Second, people would have more opportunities to optimize their self-presentations in CMC condition. People can concentrate on presenting themselves in a preferable manner in CMC, because the physical or behavioral cues which people may find undesirable or difficult to manage in FtF interactions are usually eliminated. Therefore, cognitive resources can be "reallocated" from cautiously managing non-verbal presentations back to message constructions (Walther, 1996, p. 22). Some asynchronous CMC channel also offers people chances to review, revise or even off-line process the conversation content, which further facilitate the favorable self-presentation online (Walther, 1997).

Moreover, the hyperpersonal model also posits an "intensification loop" between the information sender and receiver in CMC (Walther, 1996, p. 27). Since people tend to make judgments based on their overly attributed perceptions, their partners' behavior may not only come to converge with the expectations, but also be manifested and reinforced. Though the interesting reciprocal influence which known as the "behavioral confirmation" (Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977) appears in FtF interactions too, Walther claimed that it has magnified effects in CMC due to the minimal cues transmitted in this restricted medium (Walther, 1996).

Some empirical research lends support to the model. For example, strong friendships or even romantic relationships have been shown to be possible in CMC (e.g.: Utz, 2000), however, when there is a "modality switch"(i.e.: online friends meet in person), they always find a discrepancy between the impression formed online and the FtF one, and the former is usually overly positive (Ramirez & Wang, 2008).

Online Impression Formation Findings

After the discrepancy in the "modality switch" has been found, more research have been done to examine how exactly the impressions in CMC is different from those in FtF and how people strategically make their media choices. Most of the research results are in line with the hyperpersonal model.

Hancock and Dunham's study in 2000 assessed the impression differences in terms of breadth (i.e.: how many different attributes of impression can be developed) and intensity (i.e.: how in-depth the impression can be formed). The between-subject experiment was carried out in two conditions: FtF and CMC. Participants were brought to lab environment to work on a collaboration task in two conditions: FtF and CMC. After the one time interaction, participants were required to finish a questionnaire regarding their partners' personality. CMC participants did form less comprehensive impressions of their partners, which supported the CFO theory that reduced non-verbal cues constrained the range of information conveyed in CMC; however, CMC participants formed more extreme perceptions of their partners' personality, which is in line with the over-attribution phenomenon posited in the hyperpersonal model. The study's importance lies in its smart decomposition of the concept of impression: the breadth aspect acknowledges CMC medium's constrains brought by the limited social and interpersonal cues, whereas the intensity aspect inspires future researchers to consider more the cognitive strategies involved in the online interpersonal or hyperpersonal communication (Hancock & Dunham, 2001).

Different from analyzing the actual impression formation process, O'Sullivan conducted an interesting study to see how people in relationships strategically choose mediated mediums over FtF so as to create more positive self-presentations. Among the four interpersonal communication scenarios ("boost", "praise", "confess" and "accuse") described in O'Sullivan's paper, when the valence of the scenario is negative (i.e.: confess about oneself or accuse about others), participants are more likely to select mediated channels such as emails or telephone to convey information (O'Sullivan, 2000). O'Sullivan concluded that the limited cues in mediated mediums actually became advantages for interactions which could potentially threaten positive impressions (O'Sullivan, 2000). The study strengthened the hyperpersonal model by showing mediated channels can effectively support selective self-presentational goals.

Problems with the Hyperpersonal Perspective

Though the empirical studies reviewed above are mostly in line with the hyperpersonal theory, very few studies has been done regarding the underlying mechanisms or cognitive processes proposed by the theory. Also, whether a more exaggerated impression or more in-depth interpersonal relationship will be built in CMC depends on various factors. For example, Utz (2000) found that the individual differences in skepticism about the cyber world and mediated ways of communication play crucial roles in the sociality of CMC: "Individuals who believe it possible to build up relationships in virtual worlds learn how to use smileys, feelings, and emotes and thus make friends in MUDs , but those who are more skeptical of CMC do not" (Utz, 2000, p. 15). Indeed, the hyperpersonal model of CMC is a valuable attempt to explain why there would be friendship, trust, in-depth self-disclosure or even romance formed when people have never really met with each other; however, we have to understand the complexity of how interpersonal relationships are built and taken multi-dimensional factors, such as the familiarity with CMC, the anonymity level, task-oriented or socio-oriented communication goal, cultural differences, etc. into consideration when viewing the sociality of CMC from a hyperpersonal perspective.


In this age of rapid information technology development, prevalent web use and more and more geographically distributed work groups, friends or even families, CMC has become an indispensable part of our work and life. Though all three perspectives reviewed above all acknowledged that the information transmitted in the CMC environment is limited, they differ their views of whether the limitation would become a barrier for or change social relationship building. If all three perspectives are placed on a sociality scale, the impersonal perspective will be on the left end of the scale, represented by the media richness theory and the CFO theory which view the social interactions in CMC as poorly developed and largely negative. The interpersonal perspective will be in the middle representing the possibility of in-depth interpersonal communication in CMC, whereas the hyperpersonal perspective will be on the right end proposing the possibility for people to develop intimate and positive social relationships in CMC.

Not only these perspectives' positions on the scale are not static, but also the scale itself is open for further modification or even extensions in multi-dimensions, as people's behavior patterns in CMC as well as the technology have been changing all the time. Several things we should note in future CMC sociality research are: (1) it is not appropriate any more to argue for a generic effect in CMC or to come up with a theory which could quantify the general sociality level of this medium. The sociality of CMC is not universally reduced or increased, but instead interacts with the specific affordances of medium (text-based or video-based, synchronous or asynchronous, etc.), communication goals, participants identity, etc.; (2) the FtF condition has always been considered as a golden bench mark for evaluating the efficiency of CMC. However, as illustrated in the hyperpersonal perspective, FtF is not always the first choice when people try to conduct relational communication. Besides technological and cost issues, the fact that people may prefer to maintain interpersonal relationships in a lightweight way made it interesting for researchers to look into the privacy, attention allocation or even cultural difference issues involved in CMC. Also, it implies that the design goal for CMC tools is not to replicate the FtF interaction, but to meet people's communication needs in different levels and different scenarios; (3) technology, and more importantly, people's familiarity with the technology and its related user behavior have been updated on a day-to-day basis. There is no guarantee that we will get the same results for replicating the experiments or studies done 10 years, 5 years or even less time ago. Growing up under the influence of globalization and information revolution, younger generations feel so comfortable socializing with each other online, even more comfortable compared to FtfF interactions. New and more diversified CMC platforms such as mailing groups, online forums, blogs and social networking sites are emerging everyday over the past a few years. Should researchers always keep their pace with the growing sociality of CMC and come up with new perspectives or theories, or should we go deep down to analyze the underlying psychological principles of people's behaviors in today's online world? These questions need to be answered under the collaboration of researchers from various disciplines including communication, psychology, computer science, etc.

Wallace wrote in her famous book "The psychology of the Internet" (2001) that as a new communication medium, Internet can have "potent effects on our perceptions and behavior", and at the same time "it is an environment that we, as Internet users, can affect and mold, ..." (Wallace, 2001, p. 1). Indeed, the sociality of CMC is not a static value but a fluid concept continues to evolve as the medium and user behavior keep changing and interacting with each other. It can become the reality in the foreseeable future that the ways we sustain our interpersonal relationship are primarily based on the Internet. Hopefully when the day comes, we can still remember and appreciate how warm and supportive a real hug can be.

    Those who feel better able to express their "true selves" in Internet rather than face-to-face interaction settings are more likely to form close relationships with people met on the Internet (McKenna, Green, & Gleason, this issue). Building on these correlational findings from survey data, we conducted three laboratory experiments to directly test the hypothesized causal role of differential self-expression in Internet relationship formation. Experiments 1 and 2, using a reaction time task, found that for university undergraduates, the true-self concept is more accessible in memory during Internet interactions, and the actual self more accessible during face-to-face interactions. Experiment 3 confirmed that people randomly assigned to interact over the Internet (vs. face to face) were better able to express their true-self qualities to their partners.


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