Who are “stinkybug” and “Packerfan4”? Email Pseudonyms and Participants’ Perceptions of Demography, Productivity, and Personality

Authors

  • Jennifer M. Heisler,

    1. Department of Rhetoric, Communication, and Journalism
      Oakland University
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    • Jennifer M. Heisler is an assistant professor in the Communication area of Oakland University’s department of Rhetoric, Communication, and Journalism. Her research interests include family communication and communication education. The impetus for this article came from discussions with her undergraduate students about their own usernames and issues of communication and perception.

      Address: Oakland University, Department of Rhetoric, Communication, and Journalism, 315 Wilson Hall, Rochester, MI, 48309 USA

  • Scott L. Crabill

    1. Bachelor of General Studies Program
      Oakland University
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    • Scott L. Crabill is Director of the Bachelor of General Studies program at Oakland University. Computer-mediated communication and interpersonal communication with a quantitative methodological focus are his primary areas of study. His current research investigates the language dynamics of white supremacist groups in computer-mediated contexts, specifically discussion boards.

      Address: Oakland University, Bachelor of General Studies, 520 O”Dowd, Rochester, MI 48309-4401 USA


Abstract

This study explores whether in the absence of face-to-face interaction individuals rely on mediated “clues” for constructing their perceptions of other individuals. Specifically, we assess whether individuals use the information in email usernames to create basic assumptions about the sender of a message. Ninety-four male and 206 female participants completed self-report surveys asking their perceptions of an instructor-assigned, fictional group member including sex, age, race, and work productivity. A majority of participants assigned biological sex, ethnicity, and age to the fictional member. Participants often identified the creative emails as belonging to Caucasian males, while plain usernames were unknown and perceived as significantly more productive. The majority of participants chose to delete the message, listing lack of recognition as a reason for avoidance. These results suggest that email usernames may shape perceptions when other, nonverbal cues are absent.

Introduction

Computers continue to pervade the daily lives of individuals. In addition to being a tool for education and research, Internet capabilities now include commercial (e.g., Ebay.com) and personal (e.g., EHarmony.com) activities. Moreover, the development of wireless Internet connections (Internet capabilities on cellular phones and PDAs) has made it possible for individuals to stay connected wherever they travel. Schools and public libraries offer free access to online research to individuals who cannot afford the financial commitment of wireless service (Hargittai, 2003). An increasing number of Internet providers offer affordable service, free service, or service combined with other amenities (e.g., Cable Television). The pervasiveness of this technology has made the Internet accessible to even the most casual of computer users. Accordingly, the number of people venturing into cyberspace continues to grow; it is estimated that of the 79.5% of Americans with access to the Internet in 2004, 63% had accessed the Internet within the last 30 days (Mediamark Research, 2004).

While some research has explored the actions individuals perform while managing impressions on the Internet or personal web pages (Walther, 1993), little is known about how receivers perceive these intentional messages. Uncertainty Reduction Theory (Berger & Calabrese, 1975) offers insight into the strategies individuals use to assess others during initial encounters. Although traditionally used to predict face-to-face encounters, Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT) may offer insights into the ways individuals interpret and respond to the mediated messages of others. The current study uses URT to explore the ways in which individuals utilize mediated cues in developing impressions of others. Since electronic mail is one of the most pervasive forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC), the current study focuses on email usernames or pseudonyms. Specifically, the study explores whether, in the absence of face-to-face interaction, individuals use email usernames as a basis for constructing perceptions of other individuals, and if so, in what ways.

Computer-mediated communication: impersonal vs. personal

Early research on CMC argued that the Internet and its technologies were best suited to impersonal and task-oriented interactions (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984). Support for these claims was based on the reduced number of nonverbal cues available to people communicating through mediated channels (Culnan & Markus, 1987; Kiesler, 1986; Kiesler, et al., 1984). “In traditional forms of communication, head nods, smiles, eye contact, distance, tone of voice, and other nonverbal behavior give speakers and listeners information they can use to regulate, modify, and control exchanges” (Kiesler, et al., 1984, p. 1125). Without these nonverbal, relational clues, CMC was seen as lacking the communicative subtext necessary to support interpersonal communication (Connolly, Jessup, & Valacich, 1990; Hiltz, Johnson, & Turoff, 1986; Hiltz, Turoff, & Johnson, 1989).

Despite these early conclusions, subsequent interest has centered on the interpersonal implications of cyberspace (Cohen & Metzger, 1998; Mitra, 1997; Parks & Floyd, 1996; Soukup, 2000; Walther, 1992). Research has identified nonverbal cues in the form of graphical icons, or emoticons, that operate in place of traditional face-to-face affiliative behaviors (Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004). Using social identification/de-individuation (SIDE) and social information processing theories, Walther and Tidwell (1995) explored how response times (e.g., delayed versus immediate responses) to individual emails may serve as nonverbal cues in mediated contexts. In their study, long delays in responses to emails were perceived as sending a negative nonverbal message, in much the same way that avoidance of face-to-face contact is perceived in nonmediated circumstances. Moreover, length and depth of messages signal intimacy much the same way that personal disclosure operates in face-to-face interactions (Soukup, 2000), although mediated relationships seem to develop intimacy more quickly than their face-to-face counterparts (Walther, 1996; Walther & Burgoon, 1991).

An overview of CMC research suggests that communication mediated by computers can be impersonal and task-oriented as well as enabling interpersonal communication and relationships (Walther, 1996). As Cohen and Metzger (1998) argue,

[u]nderlying the motivations for both mediated and face-to-face communication is a basic need for social affiliation. The need for social affiliation is so central for communication because it stems from, and is necessary for, understanding of who we are in relation to the world around us. (p. 1)

The need for connection with others has led to a growing interest in self-presentation in cyberspace. Dominick (1999) observes that mediated behavior seems to mirror self-presentation in interpersonal settings. Walther (1996) contends that “in some cases, opportunities for selective self-presentation, idealization, and reciprocation exceed what we may accomplish face-to-face, in terms of our impression-generating and relational goals” (p. 28). Certainly the mediated nature of CMC allows for greater manipulation and more careful construction of personal information; the delayed nature of most CMC gives participants the opportunity to review, revise, and even cancel their communications before they are sent. Research on impression management confirms that much of this process is conscious; individuals rely on context to determine how they will represent themselves (Andrews & Kacmar, 2001; Berzonsky & Adams, 1999; Yoder, 2000). In CMC, there is the ability to conceal or construct identities. Gender, race, class, ethnicity, and religious affiliation can be manipulated, concealed, or accentuated in mediated contexts, according to the user’s intent.

Electronic mail (Email)

Electronic mail is particularly susceptible to impression management. One of the most pervasive forms of computer-mediated communication (Newby, 1993; Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004), email is useful for achieving both task-oriented and personal goals. The use of email requires system administrators to establish an “email account” which in turn requires individuals to set a specific username and password to ensure privacy and security. Email is popular worldwide; it is easily accessible and can be used by even the most basic computer user. Moreover, individuals often utilize a single email account across a variety of interactions, including work and personal communications. Therefore, a single email username must function within a wide array of contexts.

It follows that one’s email username would be prone to impression management, much as one’s physical self-presentation is used to manage impressions during face-to-face encounters. Previous research on impression management has suggested that such “management” is conscious and context dependent. However, little is known about the ways in which impressions are received by others, particularly in mediated contexts. The previously cited research suggests that individuals are likely to construct “context driven” impressions, even in computer-mediated settings. Additional research suggests that CMC contains many “signals” that provide recipients clues to the emotional state and development of relationship with senders of messages (Tidwell & Walther, 2002; Walther & Burgoon, 1992). Therefore, it seems that an individual’s email username could be viewed and interpreted by others as a potential source of information about its user. However, once the information is received, it is not clear what happens next. Uncertainty Reduction Theory offers potential insight into this process, including the role of information gathering and decision-making when uncertainty clouds receivers’ perceptions.

Uncertainty reduction theory and computer-mediated communication

Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT) was initially proposed by Berger and Calabrese (1975) as an explanation for information-seeking behaviors of individuals during initial interactions. This theory of seven axioms and 21 theorems suggests that individuals are distressed when denied the ability to predict or explain others’ behaviors. While its authors acknowledge that much of social interaction is rule-governed—as in, for example, a typical “hi-how-are-you-fine-how-are-you” greeting script—URT contends that our predictive/explanatory powers are dependent on context, relationships with others, and the likelihood of future interaction with this person (e.g., Parks & Adelman, 1983; Planap & Honeycutt, 1985). According to URT, in moments when prediction/explanation are weakest, individuals will experience discomfort, anxiety, or stress—an experience the authors characterize as “uncertainty.” Because uncertainty is an unpleasant state, individuals tend to avoid situations likely to provoke uncertainty (or situations they cannot adequately predict or explain).

URT has been used extensively in research addressing the interpersonal components of CMC (e.g., Parks & Floyd, 1996; Pratt, Wiseman, Cody, & Wendt, 1999; Walther & Burgoon, 1991). For example, when comparing face-to-face groups with similarly matched online groups, Walther and Burgoon (1991) discovered that the face-to-face groups were more task-oriented than the CMC groups, and suggested that “[i]t is plausible that uncertainty reduction needs combined with [CMC’s] convenient time and channel for expression allow selective self-presentation and relational behavior to emerge more readily than in traditional group settings” (p. 79).

It should be noted that URT and other relational theories predate the explosion of computer-mediated relationships. Hence, the scope of such theories is limited in their application to CMC. However, this does not mean that URT cannot be of use in understanding new phenomena that arise in CMC. Given the nature of email pseudonyms, incorporating theoretical perspectives that address nonverbal and informational-focused aspects of relational dynamics is appropriate. URT acknowledges these valuable components of communication and does not require physical proximity or frequent interaction as conditions for relational development. The following paragraphs highlight the theory’s assumptions, main tenets, and explanatory capability for recipients of mediated messages.

URT and Email communication

As previously mentioned, URT assumes that humans have an innate desire to predict and explain the world around them. Prediction can be defined as the ability to forecast one’s own and others’ behavioral choices, while explanation is the ability to interpret the meaning of those behavioral choices. In email communication, these predictive and explanatory desires surface when deciding whether or not to open an incoming message (e.g., “Does it have a virus?;”“Is this likely to be a student complaint about class?”), constructing our own messages (“Does this message sound ok?”), and finally when attempting to make sense of others messages (“Why did she type in ALL CAPS?”).

According to the theory, when these predictive and explanatory abilities are weakened, individuals experience uncertainty. This uncertainty, an aversive state that absorbs emotional and psychological energy, is an experience most individuals would prefer to avoid and/or reconcile. During face-to-face encounters, individuals take steps to increase their predictive abilities by paying attention to the surrounding contextual and nonverbal clues. For instance, meeting someone at a bar and noticing his/her smile and eye contact might give insight into how this person would respond to a dinner invitation. In mediated contexts, the same initial uncomfortable uncertainty exists. Similarly, mediated individuals are driven to reduce uncertainty by attending to available clues. However, in the absence of contextual and facial nonverbal clues, individuals must rely on the mediated information to reduce their uncertainty. In email contexts, this mediated information includes the email username or pseudonym attached to the incoming message. Therefore, we hypothesize that:

H1: Study participants will utilize email usernames as sources of information about the sender of the message.

Moreover, given that increased predictability should lower uncertainty, it is possible that individuals will seek as much information about other individuals as possible. Therefore:

H2: Study participants will provide more descriptive information for creative email usernames (sober4alilbit) than for plain usernames (ZH7624).

An underlying assumption exists regarding the nonverbal cues exchanged and gathered in face-to-face settings. Research suggests that individuals treat most nonverbal behavior as intentional and designed to communicate information to others (e.g., Allen & Atkinson, 1981; Buck & VanLear, 2002; Manusov & Rodriguez, 1989; Richmond & McCroskey, 2004). For instance, yawning during a lecture is often perceived as an intentional message to the “boring” professor; the graphic t-shirt worn to a concert denotes one’s socio-economic status and cultural affiliation, and so forth. Consistent with the impression management literature, individuals in mediated contexts may assume that the usernames employed in cyberspace contain purposeful clues as to the personality or identity of the sender, and that they moreover serve as unique identifiers, since email addresses cannot be duplicated. Therefore, an individual’s perceptions of volition should influence the impact that a given username has on his or her perceptions. In other words, usernames perceived as selected and designed by their users should offer more information (and greater predictability) to others. Therefore:

H3: Study participants will provide greater amounts of information for those email usernames identified as chosen by the sender than for usernames considered to have been assigned to the sender.

H4: Study participants will view creative email usernames as having been chosen by senders more often than plain usernames. Conversely, plain usernames will be identified as having been assigned to the senders more often than creative usernames.

Berger and Calabrese (1975) also believed that levels of uncertainty could have relational implications. Assuming that an inability to predict/explain another’s behavioral choices creates uncertainty, and that this uncertainty is aversive and creates cognitive stress, it follows that highly unpredictable relationships could be difficult to maintain. URT relates this argument to “liking” for another: Increases in uncertainty produce decreases in liking, while decreases in uncertainty produce increases in liking. For email users, liking could be tied to the amount of information contained in the username. For instance, email pseudonyms that offer insight into a sender’s personality (e.g., Happygrl@any.com) or work ethic (e.g., slacker@any.net) might increase predictability, such that they increase others’ desire to work or hang out with them. Recent research has explored the impact of computer mediation on perceived personality (Rouse & Haas, 2003), and research in group communication and social perception supports the premise that an individual’s preference to work with others is guided by the social perceptions he or she has of them (Ambady, Hallahan, & Rosenthal, 1995; Cesario, Plaks, & Higgins, 2006). Therefore, we advance the following hypotheses:

H5a: Owners of creative usernames will be perceived by study participants as more productive and desirable to work with in group settings than owners of plain usernames.

H5b: Owners of creative usernames will be perceived as having more positive personality traits (e.g., “more fun”) than owners of plain usernames.

A final axiom of URT identifies information seeking as a common and successful strategy for the reduction of uncertainty in initial interactions. High levels of uncertainty cause increases in information seeking behavior, and as uncertainty levels decline, information seeking behavior decreases.

In face-to-face interactions, information-seeking behaviors typically manifest as questions. In order to reduce uncertainty, individuals engage in question and answer exchanges. As answers accumulate, individuals gain a greater ability to predict the others’ behaviors, and uncertainty is reduced. In the context of email pseudonyms, however, the information seeking changes form. In the absence of a traditional, face-to-face, “back and forth” question session, recipients may treat username information as an implicit first question/answer session. For instance, suppose that an unknown individual sends an email message, providing subject line and email username. This message information acts as an implicit answer to an unasked question. It provides the recipient the chance to further reduce uncertainty by opening the message (thus continuing the “back and forth” session), or to end the interaction by deleting. In order to reduce uncertainty, the recipient needs to continue the session (by opening the email message), yet the current influx of unsolicited commercial email (spam) leads many users to delete messages based on the perception of the origins of those messages. The resulting uncertainty may compel individuals to open incoming messages even from those usernames they do not recognize. Email usernames that provide more information about the sender may be more likely to be opened, as the pseudonyms provide recipients with information about the senders’ intentions and goals. Therefore, we hypothesize that:

H6: Study participants will be more likely to open a message from a person with a creative username than a message from a person with a plain username.

RQ1: What reasons to participants give for opening as opposed to deleting an incoming message?

Methodology

Participants

The participants for this study were 300 undergraduate students at a mid-sized midwestern U.S. university. Ninety-four male and 206 female participants averaged 22.5 years (SD = 5.7) in age and represented predominantly Caucasian (n = 229, 76.3%), African American (n = 32, 10.7%), Middle Eastern (n = 21, 7%), and Latino/Latina (n = 8, 2.7%) ethnicities. The student participants varied in their progress toward degree completion; 105 seniors (35%), 100 juniors (33.3%), 56 sophomores (18.7%), and 37 first-year students (12.4%) were included. The majority of the participants indicated they were employed (85%), working an average of 28 hours per week (SD = 11.6, range = 4-60 hours) in addition to attending classes.

Instrument

The self-report surveys (see Appendix) consisted of two sections, each assessing participants’ perceptions of potential group members for an upcoming class project. During the general instructions, participants were asked to imagine that they had “just been randomly assigned to work with two other students on a class project.” The only information participants received about the potential group members was their email addresses. Six fictional email addresses were created through discussion with undergraduate students at the authors’ university: ZH7624 (n = 51), ai4773 (n = 47), Sober4alilbit (n = 61), Stinkybug (n = 51), packerfan4 (n = 41), and wanna69 (n = 49). All addresses were paired with the Internet domain address “@any.com” within the survey. Although fictional, the names were created to reflect contrasting amounts of information that could be included in an email address. Email addresses were randomly paired, such that participants recorded their perceptions of a different email username for each section.

In the first section, participants were asked to identify the sex, race, and age of the hypothetical group member based on the given email address. In each case, participants were given several categories from which to select (e.g., male/female), including “don’t know.” Then participants were asked several questions related to the given email address. Specifically, they were asked whether or not the group member’s email address had been assigned (vs. chosen), and whether or not they would open a message received from this address. In addition, this section included a measure of participants’ perceptions about their new group member. The scale contained 10 Likert-type items utilizing a 5-point response scale (1 = strongly disagree; 5 = strongly agree). The 10-item scale consisted of two dimensions: perceptions related to personality and perceptions related to work or task productivity. Each dimension included five items. Sample items included “This person is shy and reserved,”“This person will be difficult to work with,” and “This person will do good work (on this project).”

In the next section of the survey, participants received the second hypothetical group member’s email address. Following this address, they were asked to write a description of the group member. Participants were encouraged to “feel free to describe what YOU think about this person and his/her beliefs and behaviors,” and were given ample space to provide their own open-ended description of the group member.

Procedures

Data were collected during the fall semester of the 2005 academic year. All potential participants were approached in their classrooms with the instructors’ permission. At the end of the class period, the researchers identified themselves, explained the research project, and distributed surveys with an attached consent letter. Students interested in participating in the study completed the surveys and returned them to an identified location in the classroom. Once the completed questionnaires were returned, the researchers separated the signed consent forms from the completed surveys.

Analyses

Confirmatory factor analyses were run for the perception scale. The confirmatory factor analyses were consistent with a two-dimensional solution (personality and work productivity) after two items were eliminated from the personality dimension (“This person will be frustrating to me and the group” and “I would not socialize with this person outside of class or school”). Reliability coefficients were .71 and .86, respectively.

Coding

A coding scheme was developed for the two open-ended survey items: “Please explain why you would or would not open this email [from this email address]” and “Please write a description of this person [based on the given email].” For both items, approximately 10% of the questionnaires (n = 30) were utilized as representative responses to create the coding categories. All questionnaires were submitted to evaluation by two trained coders who reached agreement regarding any coding disputes.

For the first item, 7 categories emerged from participants” responses for deciding to open/delete (see Table 1), including fear of virus and lack of sender recognition. For the second open-ended item, participants” responses were categorized based on the type of information provided, rather than the specific content of that information. For instance, one participant wrote, “I think this person is a party-animal and stays out late at night. This person would be a lot of fun to spend time with, probably NOT boring.” This participant’s response refers to two separate types of information: social life (“party-animal”) and personality characteristics (“fun”). As such, each participant’s written response could generate multiple categorizable sentences/items. Patton (2002) contends that such overlapping requires that researchers determine which categories are more important and illuminative. Therefore, priority was given to the category that best described the response, and each sentence/item within the answer was single coded (Neuendorf, 2002).

Table 1.  Categories and frequencies for participants’ reasons for disregard of email messages
CategorynPercentage
Delete message20669%
 Fear of virus5016.7%
 Lack of sender recognition11036.7%
 Attention to subject line227.3%
 Emotional response3311%
Open message9431%
 Curiosity/Interest4515%
 “Open anything”124%
 Miscellaneous103.3%

Fourteen categories of information were identified in participants” responses (Table 2). These included descriptions of the fictional group member’s age (either specific years, age range, or descriptive language, such as “younger”), major or educational focus in school (e.g., “will definitely be majoring in business”), ethnicity, sex, affability (such as “I would like to hang out with this person”), relationship status (including descriptions of marital status, or specific comments regarding sexual activity), physical appearance, reasons for entering college, mental status (e.g., “This is probably a normal guy, not a weirdo or anything”), employment status, social economic status, social life (referring to member’s behaviors or activities), personality characteristics (e.g., “shy,”“boring,”“studious”), and school or group commitment (dedication to group, work ethic, or comments about group member’s abilities related to the assigned group). In addition to providing descriptive information, several participants also indicated they were unable to provide a description of the group member based solely on email usernames. Thus, another category reflecting participants” unwillingness or inability to answer the item was included. Only participants who indicated their concern were coded as “don’t know.” Participants not responding or with blank questionnaires were counted as missing data.

Table 2.  Categories and frequencies for participants’ open-ended descriptions of email users
CategorynPercentage
  1. Note:a Seventy-one (75%) of the participants included additional description in addition to indicating that they did not know anything about the email user.

Age18818%
Sex16215.4%
Social activities12011.4%
Employment status11711%
Personality11311%
Rational for college858%
Dedication/Work ethic363.4%
Relationship status303%
Ethnicity162%
Liking/Desire to meet141.3%
Major111%
Economic status101%
Physical appearance7<1%
Mental status6<1%
Other9<1%
“Don’t know”95a9%
No response303%
TOTAL1049100%

Results

Hypothesis 1: information from usernames

For the first hypothesis, participants were asked to assess their fictional group member based solely on that group member’s email address. Participants were asked to identify the group member’s sex, age, ethnicity, whether they would open a message received from this email username and why (or why not). Overall frequencies for the first section items revealed that 73.7% of respondents identified the fictional group member’s biological sex, 55.7% identified the group member’s race, and 65% assigned the group member’s age (M = 21.4yrs., SD = 5.21) (see Table 3).

Table 3.  Frequencies for participants’ perceptions of ethnicity, sex, and age
CategorynPercent
Sex 73.7%
 Male165 
 Female56 
 Don’t know79 
Ethnicity 55.7%
 White153 
 Black6 
 Other7 
 Don’t know132 
Age19365%
 Don’t know103 

Analyses were conducted to determine whether a participant’s age, sex, or ethnicity influenced perceptions of the group member’s age, sex, and ethnicity. Chi square results for participant sex (male vs. female) by perceptions of group member’s sex (male, female, don’t know) were non significant, as were measures of participant/group members’ ethnicities (X2 = 16.04, df = 12, ns). However, female participants were more likely to select “don’t know” for the group member’s ethnicity than were male participants. Pearson product correlations showed no significant relationship between group member’s assigned age and participants’ ages.

For the second section of the questionnaire, participants were given another email username and asked to describe its owner. Participants were encouraged to provide their own perceptions and thoughts about the fictional group member. Two hundred and seventy participants provided a total of 1,019 categorizable pieces of information (M = 3.77, SD = 1.71, range = 0–9) about potential group members (see Table 2 for a complete list). Participants most frequently included descriptions of the group member’s age (n = 188) and biological sex (n = 162). Only a few participants provided comments relating to the group member’s physical appearance (n = 7) or mental status (n = 6). A total of 95 participants indicated “don’t know” (32%) regarding the fictional group member based solely on an email username. However, 75% (n = 71) of these “don’t know” participants included additional information about the group member. These reticent participants provided a total of 191 categorizable descriptions (M = 3.39, SD = 1.5) of group members after indicating that the usernames offered little perceptual information.

Hypotheses 2, 3, 4: creative vs. plain usernames

Before overall analyses were conducted, within groups tests of difference were conducted for the “creative” email usernames (wanna69, sober4alilbit, packerfan4, and stinkybug) and the “plain” usernames (ZH7624 and ai4773) where no significant differences in assignment of sex, age estimates, or ethnicity were detected. Therefore, analyses proceeded using the “creative” and “plain” groups.

In the second section of the survey, participants” descriptions of group members were again dependent upon the type of email username included. Analyses of variance revealed significant differences in the amount of information participants provided for each email username (F = 6.26, df = 5, p < .000). LSD post hoc analyses identified significant differences between ZH7624, ai4773, and packerfan4, and stinkybug, wanna69, and sober4alilbit, with the former email usernames yielding fewer pieces of information than the latter usernames.

When the creative and plain email usernames were compared, significant differences were identified for several items. The creative emails were more likely to be perceived as chosen by the group member than the plain usernames (see Table 4). Further, participants most often identified the creative emails as belonging to Caucasian males while the sex and ethnicity of plain usernames were mostly unknown (see Table 5).

Table 4.  Frequencies and Chi squares analyses: Participants’ perceptions of email volition (chosen vs. assigned) by email username
UsernamenChosenAssignedX2 (df)
  1. Note: Unequal username totals reflect blank questionnaires.***p < .000

ZH7624511829 
Ai4773472922 
Sober4alilbit61601 
Wanna6949461 
Stinkybug51492 
Packerfan441401 
Totals30024256105.63 (5)***
Table 5.  Frequencies and Chi square analyses: Participants’ perceptions of sex, age, ethnicity, and message by email username (creative vs. plain)
VariableCreativePlainX2 (df)
  • Note: Not all participants completed this section of the questionnaire; therefore, overall N varies by item.

  • a

    N = 296

  • b

    N = 300

  • c

    N = 298

  • d

    N = 298

  • ***

    p < .000

Agea15443 
 Don’t know485569.95 (1)***
Sexb
 Male11946 
 Female479 
 Don’t know364325.74 (2)***
Ethnicityc
 White12330 
 Black42 
 Other34 
 Don’t know706230.70 (3)***
Open Email?d
 Yes6725 
 No133731.97 (1)

Chi square analyses were also run to determine whether participants’ perceptions regarding email choice/assignment influenced their designation of sex, ethnicity, or age. The results indicated that email usernames perceived as selected by the owner were more likely to be assigned to a particular ethnicity, a biological sex, and an age (see Table 6) than those emails perceived as assigned.

Table 6.  Chi square analyses: Participants’ perceptions of sex, age, ethnicity, and message by perceived email volition (chosen vs. assigned)
VariableChosenAssignedX2 (df)
  • Note: Not all participants completed this section of the questionnaire; therefore, overall N varies by item.

  • a

    N = 296

  • b

    N = 300

  • c

    N = 297

  • d

    N = 298

  • *p < .05 **p < .001**p < .000

Agea17221 
Don’t know673650.99 (1)**
Sexb
 Male14421 
 Female497 
 Don’t know433623.90 (2)***
Ethnicityc
 White13815 
 Black51 
 Other51 
 Don’t know924021.07 (3)**
Open Email?d
 Yes7913 
 No161452.41 (1)

Hypothesis 6 and RQ1: deleting messages

The sixth hypothesis, regarding information and likelihood of deleting a message, was not supported. Participants responded similarly when receiving a message from plain and creative email addresses (see Table 1). The majority of participants, regardless of the email address listed, would chose to delete the message (n = 206, 69%). Participants most frequently listed the lack of sender recognition as a reason to avoid a particular email (n = 110, 36.7%). These participants included those who thought the email was probably “spam” or “junk mail.” Participants also listed fear of electronic viruses (n = 50, 16.7%), interest or curiosity (n = 45, 15%), or an emotional reaction to the email address, such as “I wouldn’t want to talk with someone who uses that kind of name” (n = 33, 11%). Twenty-two participants (7.3%) indicated that their action would depend on the subject line of the email while 12 participants said that they “open anything!” regardless of the sender (4%). The remaining participants gave other explanations for why they would open or delete an email message (n = 10, 3.3%).

Hypotheses 5a and 5b: personality and productivity

Analyses of variance between the usernames and the personality (M = 2.91, SD = .57) and work productivity (M = 3.13, SD = .67) scales were conducted. Significant differences between the email addresses emerged for both the personality (F = 2.85, df = 5, p = .016) and work dimensions (F = 8.93, df = 5, p = .000). Post-hoc LSD analyses revealed significant differences for personality between “sober4alilbit” and the other creative emails (Mdiff wanna69 = .253, SE = .11, p = .02; Mdiff stinkybug = .306, SE = .11, p = .005; Mdiff packerfan4 = .281, SE = .12, p = .015), with “sober4alilbit” being perceived more negatively. The email username “stinkybug,” in contrast, was perceived as significantly more positive than the other plain email usernames (Mdiff ai4773 = −.236, SE = .12, p = .04; Mdiff ZH7624 = −.248, SE = .11, p = .028). Regarding perceptions of work productivity, the plain email usernames (ZH7624 M = 2.91 and ai4773 M = 2.82) and “stinkybug” (M = 3.12) were perceived as significantly more productive, while “sober4alilbit” was perceived as least productive (M = 3.51) of any of the email usernames.

Discussion

Using Uncertainty Reduction Theory (Berger & Calabrese, 1975) as a guide for understanding behaviors during initial encounters, this study examined whether individuals in mediated contexts engage in interpersonal strategies similar to those in face-to-face contexts. Specifically, the researchers identified email as one mediated context in which users seek information by attending to the surrounding mediated cues. It was suggested that in the context of email, a person’s username could assume the role of “nonverbal cue” by providing information useful for the formation of perceptions by recipients.

Results of the current study suggest that email usernames do provide an opportunity to gather information about senders. The majority of participants (74%) assigned a fictional group member a specific biological sex, even when given the opportunity to select “don’t know.” More than half of the participants were also willing to describe the group member’s race (56%) and age (65%) based solely upon an email username. Some participants went further, utilizing the email names to determine various interpersonal characteristics. Furthermore, participants agreed that some email names provided more information about its owner; the plain email names (i.e., “ai4773”), designed to be vague, created more difficulties for participants. Not only were the creative usernames (i.e., “stinkybug,”“sober4alilbit”) significantly more revealing, differences within the creative names suggested the existence of an “information continuum.”

For instance, one participant described a plain username as “this could be anybody!” In contrast, participants commenting on the creative usernames “stinkybug” and “packerfan4” were more descriptive, providing information about sex, age, and often, hobbies or work performance. Participants describing the remaining creative usernames (“sober4alilbit” and “wanna69”), moreover, not only offered demographic information such as sex and age, but descriptions of the group member’s relationship status (e.g., “This guy is a PLAYER! Stay away from him!”), self-esteem (e.g., “she’s probably a drunk—with no self respect”), and even mental status (e.g., “This person is NOT normal. With an email like this, he’s definitely mental.”). Likewise, participants seemed to discriminate among usernames in terms of work productivity and personality. Those names that were moderately descriptive, such as “stinkybug,” were perceived more favorably (e.g., most beneficial to the group and most fun to be around) than the very plain or very descriptive usernames.

While this departs from the original hypotheses, perhaps participants viewed the plain names (like “ai4773”) as too vague; thus it would be difficult to “know what you were getting,” in one participants’ words. Yet, some of the creative names offered enough (perceived) information to alter participants” desires to work or socialize with this individual. For instance, the email username “sober4alilbit” was perceived negatively by participants. One might assume that the participants, concerned for their grades and the assignment they would share with this fictional group member, took the creative username as indicative of this fictional member’s lifestyle and work ethic. In other words, participants may have been fearful of working in a group with someone who was only sober for part of the project! Consistent with URT’s assumptions, participants perceived high uncertainty situations (the plain, vague usernames and the unpredictable behavior of intoxicated group members) more negatively than other usernames.

Further evidence that usernames operated as informational cues was found in participants’ assignment of usernames as “assigned to” versus “chosen by” group members. While the current researchers would have predicted the plain usernames would universally be described as “assigned” and the creative names as “chosen,” several participants answered otherwise. Unfortunately, only a handful of the participants who contradicted the researchers” expectations explained their thoughts. One participant who thought the creative email name “wanna69” was assigned reasoned: “This is too ridiculous to be selected by the group member. It has to be a work email from a porn site.” Participants who assumed the plain usernames (e.g., “ai4773”) were chosen explained that the letters within the username represented the group member’s initials (e.g., Ann Interpersonal). Along these lines, perceptions of the email usernames as “assigned to” versus “chosen by” group members influenced participants” willingness to describe the fictional group members; participants offered more information about those names perceived as chosen by group members, regardless of the username employed. This difference suggests that participants were attuned to the impression management that takes place in CMC contexts and through email usernames in particular. Participants were aware that, regardless of the context of a username, assigned usernames offered no insight into the group member’s persona. Chosen usernames, however, were recognized as an opportunity to reveal information about oneself to others. Therefore, the perception of a username as chosen seemed to endow even the plain usernames with information intended for interpretation by others.

In spite of their abilities to describe group members, participants seemed to sense that they were missing something necessary. Almost a third of the participants admitted that they “don’t know” anything about the group member. Perhaps participants felt constrained by social norms against making “snap judgments” of others. While these judgments are necessary for efficiency in daily life, people may be reluctant to admit that they rely on minimal information in making overall impressions of others. While these judgments occur in both face-to-face and CMC contexts, the participants declaring their uncertainty in the current study may have been more attuned to social “delay judgment” norms because of the mediated context. CMC contexts apparently do offer enough nonverbal information to influence mediated perceptions, albeit less than is typically found in person-to-person encounters. Missing some of the nonverbal cues normally available during face-to-face interactions may cause momentary hesitation as participants mentally assemble their perceptions of the fictional group members.

In addition to providing information about personality and behaviors, the email usernames also impacted the likelihood of continued interactions. According to URT, individuals in face-to-face interactions gather information through question and answer sessions, thereby reducing uncertainty and affecting the likelihood of continued interaction. In mediated contexts, the timing and content of these exchanges differ, but appear to produce similar outcomes. Participants universally tended to delete a hypothetical incoming email message from an unknown source, in spite of the username employed. However, the reasons given for the lack of continued interaction suggested that participants relied a great deal on their feelings of uncertainty. For example, the majority of participants feared the unknown message would contain a virus or damage their computer system. This comment was often paired with the explanation “I don’t open messages from unknown senders.”

URT suggests that when faced with uncertainty, individuals can rely on their similarity to the other in order to increase predictability (Berger & Calabrese, 1975). In other words, when faced with little information about another, a student participant might assume that the unknown group member was similar to him- or herself in age, sex, or ethnicity, as a means of coping with uncertainty. Yet, the participants did not appear to identify with the unknown group member. Results indicated that the participants” own demographic characteristics were not predictive of those characteristics assigned to group members.

While URT might explain this reluctance as evidence of great uncertainty, other theoretical perspectives might offer more substantial explanation. The risk aversion literature (see McComas, 2006; Zaleskiewicz, 2001) would suggest that the universal drive to delete incoming messages functions as a protective mechanism against on-coming threats. This perspective might also offer insight into why some individuals would “open anything,” as tolerance of risk and thrill-seeking behaviors differs across individuals (Filbeck, Hatfield, & Horvath, 2005). For example, those individuals willing to open the unfamiliar email listed curiosity as a primary reason to investigate the unknown message.

Future research and conclusions

The present study has contributed understanding of how information processing takes place in mediated contexts, isolating how impressions might develop in email interactions. Nonetheless, it remains unresolved how these perceptions are managed, and how this process differs across mediated and face-to-face contexts.

The primary limitation of the current study was that it underestimated the complexities of the potential nonverbal cues embedded in email interactions. Many participants noted that the “subject” line of the email would be important for considering the nature of the contact. Similarly, issues resulting from the increasing number of unsolicited emails (spam) complicate this area of research. In future research a more stringently controlled setting should assess the uncertainty-reducing roles of domain names (e.g., “any.com”) and subject lines in email messages. Furthermore, the usernames were compiled from university students in an attempt to use plausible, yet qualitatively different, addresses. Future research should control for the differences in the selected names in pretests prior to the collection of the survey data.

This study positions itself in opposition to the notion that CMC cannot be interpersonal in nature, while substantiating the need for careful examination of how CMC is operationalized and researched. It would be useful for future research to apply other established theories within this context; for instance, an exploration of how Communication Accommodation or Impression Management operates could provide further insight into the nature of CMC.

Appendix

Appendix: Questionnaire Items

I am: _____ Male  _____ Female

My age: ____________

My race/ethnicity is:

 _____ White/Caucasian non Hispanic  _____ Chicano-Mexican American

 _____ Black/African non Hispanic  _____ Hispanic

 _____ American Indian/Alaskan Native  _____ Asian/Pacific Islander

 _____ Other______________________

My major is: ________________________________________________________

My approximately year of school is:

 _____ First-year (0–30 credits)  ______ Sophomore (31–60 credits)

 ______ Junior  (61–94 credits)  ______ Senior (95+ credits)

Are you currently working, in addition to attending school?  _____ Yes  _____ No

If yes, approximately how many hours per week do you work? _________________/per week

DIRECTIONS: You’ve just been randomly assigned to work with two other students on a class project. You have not yet been given any information about the project or the other individuals, but the instructor did have the email addresses of your group members. Their email addresses are listed below. Please answer the following questions regarding each group member.

First group member’s email: _____________________________

What do you think this individual’s sex is? _____ Male _____ Female _____ Don’t know

What do you think this individual’s age is?  _____ Age  _____ Don’t know

What do you think this individual’s ethnicity is?

 _____ White/Caucasian non Hispanic  _____ Chicano-Mexican American

 _____ Black/African non Hispanic  _____ Hispanic

 _____ American Indian/Alaskan Native  _____ Asian/Pacific Islander

 _____ Other_________________  _____ Don’t know

Do you think this person chose their email address or do you think it was assigned (by school, an employer, etc.)?

 _____ Chose his/herself  _____ Was assigned

If you didn’t know this person was assigned to your group and you received an email from this email address would you open the email?

 _____ Yes  _____ No

Please explain why you would or would not open this email: _________________

Still thinking about the first group member, please answer the following questions by circling the NUMBER that reflects your beliefs or attitude:

I am looking forward to working with this person.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

I believe this person will be a responsible group member.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

I believe this person will be hard-working (within our group).
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

This person will be fun to work with.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

I think this person takes school seriously.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

I would like to spend time with this person outside of school.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

This group member will contribute equally to the project.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

This person is difficult to work with.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

This person will make our group more creative and entertaining.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

This person is outgoing.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

This person will do good work (on this project).
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

This person will be organized.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

I believe this person will be hard to contact and difficult to get in contact with (regarding projects).
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

This person is shy and reserved.
Strongly Agree  1   2   3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

If not assigned, I would have chosen to be in this person’s group.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

This person will be frustrating to me.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

I would NOT socialize with this person outside of class or school.
Strongly Agree  1   2  3   4   5   Strongly Disagree

Below is the email address of your second group member. IN THE SPACE PROVIDED below, please write a description of this person. For example, what do you think about this person’s age, employment, social life, gender, and reason for entering school. Feel free to describe what YOU think about this person and his/her beliefs and behaviors.

Second group member’s email: _____________________________

About the Authors

  1. Jennifer M. Heisler is an assistant professor in the Communication area of Oakland University’s department of Rhetoric, Communication, and Journalism. Her research interests include family communication and communication education. The impetus for this article came from discussions with her undergraduate students about their own usernames and issues of communication and perception.Address: Oakland University, Department of Rhetoric, Communication, and Journalism, 315 Wilson Hall, Rochester, MI, 48309 USA

  2. Scott L. Crabill is Director of the Bachelor of General Studies program at Oakland University. Computer-mediated communication and interpersonal communication with a quantitative methodological focus are his primary areas of study. His current research investigates the language dynamics of white supremacist groups in computer-mediated contexts, specifically discussion boards.Address: Oakland University, Bachelor of General Studies, 520 O”Dowd, Rochester, MI 48309-4401 USA

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